cognitive science
and more
Intro Bio Psy
Delicious detergents and other food-imitating products

Last week, six contestants in a cycling race in Norway were poisoned after drinking laundry detergent. Drinking detergent seems like an exceedingly idiotic thing to do. So how come that six people did this? Well ...

(Source: Twitter)

... Omo Aktiv & Sport really looks like a sports drink.

In the beginning of 2006, there were almost one hundred reports of people being poisoned after drinking Fabuloso, a surface cleaner that promises to make dirty floors shine again. Why? Well ...

... Fabuloso really looks like a soft drink.

The reason that manufacturers make their cleaning products look like food is obvious. People like eating better than cleaning, so a cleaning product is more attractive if it looks edible.

Non-foods that look like foods, and non-drinks that look like drinks, are called food-imitating products. They are recognized as a public health risk by the European Union. If a detergent looks like a drink, someone will drink it. The result is a nasty case of poisoning, which, in rare cases, can be deadly. It's a problem.

The issue of food-imitating products was studied in an interesting, if somewhat quirky, study by Basso and colleagues. This study is not new, but I think it's worth mentioning again after the cycling-race incident in Norway. First, Basso and colleagues reviewed real-life cases of poisoning by food-imitating products. Surprisingly, at least to me, poisoning was not limited to children or elderly, groups that you might expect to make these kinds of mistakes more easily. Rather, there were several reports of apparently young healthy people who, for example, mistook a tablet of bleach for a candy, or put some mayonnaise-like hair gel on a tomato and ate it. Bizarre perhaps, but it's the kind of thing that could happen to me on an off day as well.

Next, Basso and colleagues used fMRI to measure activity in brain areas that are involved in taste perception. They found increased activation when participants saw food-imitating products, compared to products that were also accidentally ingested, but did not obviously resemble food. Based on this result, they suggested that food-imitating products are in some ways processed by our brains like real food: You really want to eat or drink them. (The fMRI results were not that convincing, but the conclusion is reasonable, I think.)

But manufacturers, come on ... Do you really need neuroscience to realize that you shouldn't make a dangerous product look and smell delicious?