He Eats, She Eats: Gender and Food

There’s a definite gender gap in food preferences, cravings, and comfort foods — and there’s a whole larder full of theories about why they exist
Illustration by Jesse Lefkowitz

If pumpkin pie is on your Thanksgiving menu, don’t be surprised if more male than female guests gobble it up. That mingling of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and vanilla sends many males into culinary — and sensual — nirvana.

In a study conducted by Chicago’s Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, the aroma boosted men’s sexual arousal by 40 percent. The smell of lavender and black licorice had similar effects. In fact, a recent fragrance for women called Eau Flirt contains notes of pumpkin pie, cinnamon, and lavender. The idea, apparently, is that the scent will serve as a man-magnet for the wearer. Harvey Prince, the company that makes Eau Flirt, claims on its website that “Its pumpkin and lavender notes drive him wild.”

If that line of thinking were followed with men, they’d be spritzing on fragrances redolent of chocolate, a food that many women crave, and which has been found to release mood-elevating endorphins.

Research shows that there are gender differences in food preferences, as well as in the foods the sexes crave. For instance, a Clemson University study found that men had a stronger preference for hot, spicy foods.

A survey by the Foodborne Disease Active Surveillance Network discovered that women are more likely to eat yogurt, eggs, fruits, and vegetables, while men are inclined to chow down on meat and poultry. But what both sexes are more likely to eat is not always the same as what they prefer or crave. And the reasons for gender-based preferences aren’t entirely clear. From the time we’re children, social conditioning plays a significant role in food choice, but what’s less evident is if there’s also a biological function — and just how strong it is.

“The jury is still out. There’s the whole nature/nurture controversy,” says Marcia Pelchat, a sensory psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “Is it genetic, or is it cultural? They’re hard to separate. In western European cultures, as well as in the United States and Canada, women list desserts as their top preferred foods, with salads rating high, too, while men list meals and entrees.

“In terms of craving, which is different from preference, the top food for women is chocolate. For men, it’s pizza or pasta.”

However, Pelchat says that gender-based food preferences or cravings aren’t lopsided.

“It’s about a 60/40 percent split,” she says. “There’s nothing terribly unusual about a man craving chocolate or a woman craving a steak.”

Christine Eagle, a registered dietitian and clinical nutrition manager at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, suggests environment and social conditioning are the chief causes in explaining gender preferences in food.

“When boys are growing up, they’re encouraged to have a healthy appetite and eat steaks and hearty foods so they grow nice and big, so of course that’s going to determine their preference — probably for the rest of their lives,” she says. “For girls,” she adds, “it’s making sure they don’t have as big an appetite as boys do, and choosing lighter things so they can manage their weight better.”

Eagle also cites cultural and social expectations in elucidating why women crave sweets.

“Because food is so closely linked to emotions, and most women have either been on a diet or are currently on one, those higher-fat comfort foods like ice cream, chocolate, and cake are more appealing because they give them those calories they’re depriving themselves of,” she says. “When you deprive yourself of higher-fat foods, you develop stronger cravings.”

Pelchat also says emotions contribute to women’s chocolate cravings. “Chocolate has a romantic connotation because women often receive it as a gift,” she says. “It’s seen as an indulgence.”

As for why men tend to like pumpkin pie more than women do, Pelchat says: “Maybe you see this preference more in men because typically they don’t make the pie. For females, it’s a little less comforting, because it’s more associated with work and calories.”

A 2003 study of gender-based comfort foods conducted by the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois (now based at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.) seems to support Pelchat’s notion as to why women, who traditionally prepare meals, may gravitate to sweets for comfort. The study found that men liked tucking into hot meals such as casseroles, steaks, pizza, and pasta, while women preferred ice cream, chocolate, and cookies. But there could be environmental factors at play. Men may associate complete meals as comfort food because their mothers or wives prepared them, while women may see these foods as work, not comfort.

Or as the study, published in the journal Physiology & Behavior, said: “… the upbringing of men may have conditioned them to prefer hot meals or labor-intensive foods compared to females, who came to associate comfort foods with convenient foods that do not require their time or preparation.”

Of course, smell and memory are inextricably tied to taste. In Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, a madeleine triggers a tidal wave of recollections. So, the aroma of pumpkin pie, though pleasant in and by itself, may be even more attractive if it evokes warm sensations of happy family gatherings.

“Within our culture, cinnamon and vanilla are frequently associated with positive memories and relaxing feelings,” Pelchat says. “Just think of the Cinnabon aroma, which is a mixture of cinnamon and vanilla.”

Women, she says, tend to have a keener nose than men, and “olfactory cues are very good triggers for cravings.”

“Women, especially those of child-bearing age, are much more likely to report food cravings than are men,” Pelchat says. “There is some correlation between how good your sense of smell is and how likely you are to report cravings. But I don’t think that’s the whole story.”

Claudia Tyagi, a master sommelier and consultant with the Forest Grill in Birmingham and the Rattlesnake Club and the new Joe Muer Seafood in Detroit, is hesitant to be specific about preferences, because she’s seen trends change so dramatically since she began as a sommelier in 1977.

“Fads change, times change, and you see a lot of fluctuation,” she says. “When I first started, white wine was the thing, and California cabs weren’t nearly as important as they are now. Now white wines are secondary to red wines.”

Tyagi is also loath to generalize about gender-based wine and food choices because she’s witnessed so many exceptions.

“When I think of guys drinking wine, the big Napa cab profile comes to mind,” she says. “But that’s so stereotypical. I’ve seen women who at one time would drink only white wine order a big, hearty malbec.

“And you’d think women would prefer sparkling wine, but I’ve seen too many men belly up to the bar and polish off champagne,” she adds.

Tyagi even takes issue with the notion that women’s sense of smell is superior. “People have told me that women have a more sensitive nose, and since that’s such a huge part of tasting, that’s why I’m good at what I do,” she says. “But I’ve met guys with noses like bloodhounds who leave me in the dust.”

Marketing also reinforces gender-associated food preferences and stereotypes.

“Just as children are targeted with brightly colored packaging for cereals that are set at eye level, companies target men and women, too — the names, the packaging,” Eagle says.

If, in the supermarket, a man reaches for a 99-percent fat-free Banana Crème Yoplait yogurt with its signature pink-and-orange daisy logo, or a woman tosses a Stouffer’s Hearty Classic Country Fried Beef Steak into her cart, Tyagi wouldn’t bat an eyelash. She believes that as people become more adventurous in their palates, they’re willing to sample new things — and in the process demolish stereotypes.

“People today are more confident in their tasting ability,” she observes. “They’re more willing to try something out of the box. That goes for both genders; the lines are definitely blurring.”

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