There's junk science, and then there's junk food science.
University of Minnesota psychologist Traci Mann opted for the latter in survey research at this summer's Minnesota State Fair.
Mann and graduate students surveyed 224 fair visitors about their eating habits leading up to the fair, their fair eating strategies, and their estimates on caloric intake.
"The kind of stuff we were looking for … was whether people were showing up at the fair with a plan of what they were going to eat, and if they stuck to that plan, and if they didn't, why they didn't," Mann said.
Nearly half indicated that they changed eating behaviors at home in anticipation of eating big at the fair. Among those who did make changes, 40 percent ate fewer calories and 30 percent ate healthier foods. And 55 percent of fairgoers who completed the survey said they entered with a "game plan" for how, when and what to eat.
What caught Mann's eye: 85 percent said they stuck to the game plan, but 77 percent said they ate foods that weren't part of the original plan.
Those statistics jibed for me. I always plan to eat my favorites — at the bare minimum corn on the cob, a Dairy Barn shake, and Hawaiian Shaved Ice — but then pick up a couple additional delectables.
But for a psychologist who studies eating habits and self-control, the numbers are intriguing.
"I would think that sticking to the game plan means not eating other stuff," she said, "but I guess for other people it means, 'I'm eating all of the things I plan to eat, plus all of these other things, too."
Mann's survey was part of the debut for the Driven to Discover building, which hosted 30 U researchers who quizzed fairgoers on everything from safe driving to diabetes management to jury selection.
Mann and graduate students will be studying how fair eating strategies vary by the number and type of people who attend. They'll also compare visitors' estimates of calories consumed with actual calories from an exhaustive list of every food available.
Mann suspects calories might be lower when visitors travel in packs and share — so no one person is eating an entire bucket of Sweet Martha's Cookies. Group outings, Mann predicted, "might end up being healthier than people think."