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How to make people eat dog food

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I have to assume John Bohannon woke up one morning and thought, “What does dog food taste like?” That, or he might have just been out of food and people were coming over.

Either way, the outcome was the same. Bohannon gathered eighteen people together to voluntarily consume dog food in a study investigating whether people can distinguish pâté from dog food. Using a double blind taste test, the study ultimately investigated dog food’s palatability.

The study was not a frolic and a detour. If dog food were found comparable in taste to pâté, “[dog food] could be a suitable and inexpensive substitute for pâté or processed blended meat products such as Spam or liverwurst.”

How to eat dog food
And so Bohannon and his colleagues hosted an unusual dinner party that went down in history as the worst buffet of all time. What better time to eat dog food than on New Year’s Eve! On December 31, 2008, 18 subjects, also known as party-goers, gathered in Brooklyn, NY where they dined on 5 different spreads. Four were human-intended, meat-based products and one was the infamous dog food, in this case, Newman’s Own.

The five samples — duck liver mousse, pork liver pâté, liverwurst, Spam and dog food — were pulsed in a food processor so each had the same mousse-like consistency. Samples were then placed in serving bowls, chilled to 4 degrees Celsius and garnished with parsley. To make things extra-fancy, subjects sampled the spreads as many times as needed on Carr’s Table Water Crackers (clearly it’s a topnotch party when you can have as many Carr’s crackers as you want).

How to rank dog food
So how does one determine the palatability of dog food? See who vomits first? Maybe in your study. After tasting the samples, subjects in this study provided two critical pieces of information:
1. Sample rankings from best to worst
2. Educated guesses about which of the five spreads was dog food

Who wants dog food?
The ranking findings are not surprising. Humans do not like the taste of dog food. Over half the subjects, 72% (13 people) ranked the dog food dead last. The duck liver mousse was ranked first by 55% (10 people).

But here’s where things get weird. Although most subjects ranked Sample C, the dog food, as the worst tasting spread, when asked to report which sample was in fact dog food, most people did not guess Sample C! In fact, only 3 of the 18 subjects correctly identified Sample C as dog food! Instead, 44% (8 people) incorrectly chose liverwurst as the dog food.

As the authors suggest, the subjects could have been primed to expect the dog food to taste better than it did. After all, the dog food was Newman’s Own, and who doesn’t love Paul Newman? Additionally, since subjects were assured that their “experience would not be disgusting, they might have excluded the worst-tasting sample from their guesses.”

Morals to eating dog food
- If you serve your guests dog food, they won’t like it. But they also won’t necessarily know it’s dog food, so it’s worth a try.
- People are weird, better to study dogs.


A version of this post originally appeared on Dog Spies Blogger. It is being re-posted after being reminded of horrible tasting cafeteria food at a college reunion.

Images: Feature image via The Momfessional (Reminder: children around dog bowls, bad idea. See Do You Believe in Dog? posts The Science Surrounding Children & Dogs: Part 3 The Ugly and Dogs and babies: Not always cute); Video: Terrance eating.

Bohannon et al., 2009. Can People Distinguish Pâté from Dog Food? American Association of Wine Economists. Working Paper No. 36

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher, science writer, and PhD student at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 11 Comments

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  1. 1. PatriciaJH 7:31 pm 06/8/2013

    N too small. Clearly this needs to be repeated with a much larger sammple size for greater power.

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  2. 2. RSchmidt 11:51 pm 06/8/2013

    Interesting, I was wondering recently if it would be possible to make, “human food”. That is, a kibble or canned moist food that satisfies all our nutritional requirements. I realize that most people would not be willing to eat the same thing all the time but I wanted to know if it was possible.

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  3. 3. N a g n o s t i c 4:16 am 06/9/2013

    Carr’s and Newman’s Own? Jeez. Obviously the party was heavily skewed towards those of liberal sentiment. Liberals go for different taste treats than everybody else. I suspect the great unwashed would’ve treated dog food more tolerantly, since Cheezits and Food Lion Ranch is what they prefer during their nightly viewings of Fox News.

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  4. 4. dbtinc 9:14 am 06/9/2013

    Help me as I wasn’t paying attention is this SA or Faux News?

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  5. 5. David Marjanović 9:16 am 06/9/2013

    What an odd journal for this paper. It belongs in PLoS ONE!

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  6. 6. Ingamas 12:25 pm 06/9/2013

    You just dislike everyone.

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  7. 7. Hamako 1:37 pm 06/9/2013

    To RSchmidt: Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a kibble or canned moist food that satisfies all nutritional requirements for dogs or cats, so even if we were to accept a human equivalent, we would be as sick as we are now, and just as our pets are now. But how interesting this psychology of human expectation and aversion is. I wonder what the responses would have been if told that one of these ‘pates’ was the product of a Michelin 3 star restaurant.

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  8. 8. Fanandala 2:25 am 06/10/2013

    Hamako raises a good point.
    As far as I understand dog food is low in salt, and no fancy herbs and spices are added. I wonder how it would have fared if it had been processed in a good kitchen.
    I feed my dog pet meat from the butcher. I get it sliced like a slice of bread and freeze it. It looks really yuk, all veins and unidentifiable stuff in there, but not really fatty. When I nuke it too long before feeding, it actually smells quite nice. My son says tongue in cheek “if the dogs don’t eat it they process it into hot dogs”

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  9. 9. Micromary 9:32 pm 06/10/2013

    I have to concur with Fanandala. Based on the ingredient list, at least, the main difference between high-quality canned dog food & pate is salt and other seasoning. My husband regularly complains that our dogs’ canned kibble topper smells uncomfortably like “real” food. If only our dogs concurred; they seem more attune to the difference than we do!

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  10. 10. singing flea 5:51 pm 06/11/2013

    ‘Interesting, I was wondering recently if it would be possible to make, “human food”. That is, a kibble or canned moist food that satisfies all our nutritional requirements.”

    Yes. it’s called soylent green. Mc D’s is working with Monsanto to patent it.

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  11. 11. karl 10:19 pm 06/12/2013

    as a small child I tried the dry stuff, grew a liking for it, and as a grown up I still like some brands, (and can tell if my pets will like or not a particular brand) but the meaty stuff? that is a bit too much for me!
    of course, the saleswoman that tried to convince me that a new brand would be good for my dogs got a really surprised look when I gave my expert opinion…

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