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April 19, 2010
Volume 88, Number 16
p. 48

Last Supper Supersized, Lost In Translation

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Read the label: Or maybe not.

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Jason Koski/Cornell U
Last Supper: Brian Wansink compared entrée sizes with the size of Jesus' head.

Supersizing meals is hardly a new phenomenon. In a recent study, two scholars have shown that it's a trend that's been ongoing for the past 1,000 years. The researchers analyzed the size of the meals depicted in 52 paintings of Jesus' Last Supper created between A.D. 1000 and 2000 and found that over time the main course increased by an average of 69%, the plates became bigger by 66%, and the bread portion increased by 23% (Int. J. Obesity, DOI: 10.1038/ijo.2010.37).

"A lot of people have said that PORTION SIZES have gotten out of control. We wanted to see if this was part of a larger trend," says Brian Wansink, a marketing professor at Cornell University and a coauthor of the study, along with his brother, Craig Wansink, chair of the department of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College.

The brothers studied paintings of the Last Supper because it's one of the most famous meals in history. They used the average size of the disciples' heads as a reference point because "it was the one thing we think probably didn't change over history," Brian Wansink says. "If there were a soccer ball on the table, we would have used that."

He suggests that the type of food depicted in each painting reflects the culinary preferences of that particular period in history. For example, Leonardo da Vinci's painting included eel as part of the meal. "Back in his time, it was not an uncommon dish in Italy," he says. "They would substitute it for fish."

The study also found a particularly large increase in meal size in the 15th century, which was during the Renaissance. "A lot of this stuff mirrors the general economic prosperity at the time," Brian Wansink says. "The cool takeaway message here is that if depictions of portions increase with prosperity, availability, and affordability of food, the huge supersizing we see now in fast food or at casual dining chains is actually good news because it reflects that food is affordable and available because we're prosperous."

When asked what he thinks the Last Supper would look like if it were painted today, Brian Wansink jokes, "I'm imagining a bucket of KFC and Domino's pizza." Supersized, of course.

Interpreting and analyzing art is a fine pursuit for some, but for many people, just making out the meaning of drug prescription labels can be problematic. And recently, patients have been scratching their heads over labels translated from ENGLISH TO SPANISH. At worst, these labels could be hazardous to their health, according to a study of pharmacies in Bronx, N.Y., in the May issue of Pediatrics (DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-2530), which was recently reported by the syndicate HealthDay News.

Half of the computer-generated Spanish-language prescription labels reviewed in the study contained errors, lead researcher Iman Sharif, chief of the division of general pediatrics at the Nemours/Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children, in Wilmington, Del., told HealthDay.

The labels were often in "Spanglish," a mixture of Spanish and English, and the researchers speculate that in some cases this could lead to an overdose. For example, the word "once" means "11" in Spanish. "You mean to say 'once,' as in 'take once per day,' and a Spanish-speaking person could interpret that to mean '11,' " Sharif said.

Misspellings can also cause confusion. For example, one label substituted the Spanish word "boca," which means "mouth," with the word "poca," which means "little." The Spanish label, which reads, "Toma 0.6 mL dos veces al dia por la poca con jugo," when translated back to English, reads, "Taking 0.6 mL two times to the day by the little with juice." The authors of the study provided dozens of examples of such gibberish on labels. Sharif says this could explain in part why some Spanish-speaking patients don't understand how to use their medications.

Linda Wang wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to newscripts@acs.org.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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