6 Ways Google Hacks Its Cafeterias So Googlers Eat Healthier

Companies spend a lot of time finding ways to cut energy costs and increase recycling. Here’s how the tech giant is working to better manage another resource: the health of its staff.

Much has changed since Google earned a reputation for fattening its staffers with food on demand. These days, the company is focused on advancing its healthy eating initiatives. Explains Jennifer Kurkoski, who has a PhD in organizational behavior and runs a division of Google’s HR department called People Analytics, "When employees are healthy, they’re happy. When they’re happy, they’re innovative."

In pursuit of that healthiness, happiness, and innovation, Google has turned to "nudges": simple, subtle cues that prompt people to make better decisions. Behavioral economists have shown the idea works, but Google has taken it out of the lab and into the lunchroom. This is a sampling of the encouragement you’d get during trips through the company’s eateries—and naturally, Google is measuring the results.


No longer are M&Ms in clear hanging dispensers. If you’re in Google’s New York office, you now have to reach into opaque bins. The grab takes effort; the obscuring vessel quells enticement. The switch led to a 9% drop in caloric intake from candy in just one week.


Waiting for you as you enter the cafeteria is the salad bar. According to Jessica Wisdom, a member of the People Analytics team, studies show that people tend to fill their plates with whatever they see first. Thus, leafy greens get the most visible real estate. Desserts, meanwhile, are down another line of sight.


While grabbing a plate to load up on grub, you see a sign informing you that people with bigger dishes are inclined to eat more. It doesn’t tell you what to do, but it affects your behavior. This simple "meta nudge" caused small plate usage to increase by half, to 32% of all plate traffic.


Harvard recently revamped its food pyramid, and those lessons in metered portions have translated into a colored tag system in the cafeterias. you see green labels paired with veggies, giving you liberty to dig in. Most desserts have red ones, warning potential gluttons to proceed in moderation.


So you’ve had a bad day, and even a glaring red tag isn’t enough to discourage you from indulging in a treat. Fortunately, desserts are designed to be downed in just three bites. By making people think about having to take a second dessert plate, Google is nixing potential binges.


You’re back at your desk and thirst is setting in. You head to the kitchen. In the past, water was on tap and soda was in the fridge. Now bottled water is at eye level in the cooler, while soda has been moved to the bottom. That shift in placement increased water intake by 47%, while calories from drinks fell by 7%. Taking a sip of agua, you feel better already.

This article appears in the April 2012 issue of Fast Company.

Illustrations by Peter Oumanski.

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  • bobby

    Seems like Google thinks their employees are incapable of making decisions without being nudged.  Most people just seek out what they feel like eating.  Are Google employees robots?  Here's hoping they are grown up enough to figure it all out themselves.  What a crock.  What do these people do when they go home and it's not all spelled out for them????

  • Daniel Kim

     Google is probably addressing documented facts about peoples' behavior. It is a myth that people make all of their decisions 'rationally.' Instead, many decisions, especially ones related to daily activities such as eating, are based on habits and reflexes. For example, quoted from the article:

    "According to Jessica Wisdom, a member of the People Analytics team,
    studies show that people tend to fill their plates with whatever they
    see first. Thus, leafy greens get the most visible real estate."

    Google is not forcing people to eat salad, but their own research shows that food choice decisions are influenced by visual availability. The company seems to believe that healthier eating choices, as well as seating choices and other factors, can lead to better productivity.  Thus, food placement, table sizes and other design considerations are tailored to maximize productivity.

    Saint Paul wrote something like: 'The things I know I should do, I do not. The things I should reject are the very things I do. I am a wretch!' This is an ancient and fundamental truth about humans as 'rational agents.' It is wholly logical for Google to adopt designs that address these facts about human behavior.

  • Maxwell Waldron

    All of these are awesome. I noticed that half of them are about nudging your food/drink choices by changing what you see. If the candy is harder to see, you won't mindlessly devour it. If the first thing you see is salad or water, you go for it.  

    Here's another interesting mind hack along the same lines:

  • Daniel Goal

    The idea behind this post is intriguing though
    there was a lot of ambiguity which makes it not worth reading. That would
    mainly include the time-lapse of the research – weekly comparisons are useless
    when talking about food, i.e. tastes. It is profoundly clear that a person will
    alter his lunch menu due to different shelving for a week though that does not
    prove the continuity of the behaviour. A person who is used to eating
    particular products and has been doing it for a reasonably good time will fall
    into one of those ‘’decreasing categories’’ for the first few weeks though will
    come back and bend his back for a can of soda after a month (because of his
    semi-ingrained habits and his brain incongruities) unless he will experience a profound
    difference in his wellbeing or productivity. The ‘hacking of cafeterias’ should
    be followed by a delicate employee poll and healthy eating recognition campaign
    in order to re-assure the healthy eaters and to convince the non-healthy eaters.
    There’s a lot more in changing people’s eating habits - shelving may work to
    boost sales in supermarkets but when reversing the habit it can only do good for
    a short period of time.

  • Carol Emert

    Love the soda/water placement idea -- good for Google. 

    Kind of funny -- by contrast, I recently worked in an office that stocked a large fridge with soda and consigned water to a locked fridge usable only for visitors. 

    When I asked about getting cold water for staff, I was told that the company had tried that, but it was too popular -- the water would run out too quickly. 

    It seemed like a missed opportunity to serve employees -- in a way that probably would have helped us serve the company a bit better.  

  • JJ Doe

    Hi folks - yes, water bottles can be recycled.

    But that doesn't really take into effect the energy we waste to create the bottle and to recycle it. And when other water resources are available - especially great quality water coolers - that seems like an enormous waste.

    And plastic bottles don't always end up where they're supposed to in the trash stream. That's why we have huge islands of plastic in our oceans - all fed by our usage. 

  • Rodrye

     Actually plastic bottles can't be recycled, only downcycled to lower quality products. Plastics last a very long time, but degrade in quality rapidly. Aluminium cans on the other hand, can be recycled into another aluminiumn can exactly the same quality as the previous one, using substantially less energy than is required to make them from scratch.

  • plie65

    Ugh. All those anonymous unwashed hands plunging into bins of M&Ms. Seems the germ-i-ness of it all would really cut down on the consumption of hard candy.

  • K N

    "Now bottled water is at eye level in the cooler, while soda has been moved to the bottom. That shift in placement increased water intake by 47%"

    This also increased wasting plastic for something as simple as WATER by %175!

  • Random

    It's why there are more bins marked "RECYCLE" that are bigger than the general trash bins.

  • fairisfair

    I'm going to put a wager on the fact that the soda comes in bottles, too. Trust me, I'm all for water over soda, but these folks who blame water for the plastic don't really understand that people who drink soda drink (and throw away) upwards of three times more a day than water drinkers...thus more waste.  If you're going to fight this, fight it properly - eliminate the use of all plastic bottles. Don't be exclusive to water bottles.

  • Tworoomsplay

    Here's the thing, the only "water" that is bottled and in the fridge are flavored waters.  Drinking water, both still and sparkling comes from filtered taps that are supplied with the same re-useable glasses as are in the cafeterias.  My friend has invited me on a tour and I've eaten there...they have it good, man.

  • Johnny Freedom

    Am I the only one that feels insulted to be considered a lab-rat in someone else's social engineering experiment?  Call me crazy, but I'm not too fond of being 'nudged'  in one direction or another; last I checked one of the caveats of being a grown-up was being able to make my own decisions and then being responsible for them. 

    What's next?  Being 'nudged' into wearing certain clothing at work or being 'encouraged' to work a weekend and missing my kids' sporting activities, etc.?

    Being healthy is great and recycling is good too - but not at the expense of manipulating people (aka taking their freedom of choice away).

  • Daniel Kim

    If you work in a factory, office or lab, you are being nudged into certain behaviors. Cubicles are designed to evoke certain attitudes among workers. Colors are selected in order to increase or decrease attention. Walls are covered with hard or soft surfaces to change the level and type of ambient noise, and lighting is set to create spaces for contemplation or action. If you have children, you have done similar things to them as well.

    In the article, Google is described as providing desserts, candy and utensils in variety so employees can freely decide what they will eat and how they will eat it. I am sure there is someone who simply takes a half-dozen small cakes for dessert without overt penalty. For those who do not have strong preferences about their dessert, the layout encourages healthier choices.

    A company with overweight, diabetic employees will have to charge higher premiums to everyone for their health plan. Similarly, a building full of sleepy, overfed people in the afternoon will not get as much work done, and they may all be out of work.