The Wisdom of Google: “Dessert”, “Honey” and “Fruit” Closer to “Dinner” than “Breakfast” or “Lunch”

I have blogged many times that bedtime honey improves sleep. I learned this from Stuart King, an Australian musician. He also pointed out we eat dessert with dinner more than with other meals. which others who have described the honey effect have not said. The dessert observation suggests that other sweets, not just honey, improve sleep. After I repeated the dessert observation, a friend said I of all people should know it isn’t universal. The Chinese don’t eat dessert, she said. Yes, I said, but where I lived in Beijing there seemed to be lots of sweets eaten in the evening, and lots of street vendors selling fruit in the evening.

The honey-sleep connection helped me improve my sleep in other ways. I found my sleep got better if in addition to bedtime honey I ate fruit (e.g., banana) an hour or so before bedtime.  My sleep got even better if I ate something sweet, such as Yakult, an hour or so before that. Both observations implied that honey improved sleep because of the sugar. Nowadays I usually eat three sets of sweets: soon after dinner, mid-evening, and bedtime. I sleep very well every single night, better than ever before. These findings make sense if glycogen (stored glucose) is very important for sleep. My way of eating (three sets of sweets slightly spread out) may produce more glycogen at bedtime than similar ways of eating (e.g., eating the same sweets spread throughout the day).

Recently I realized that Stuart’s observation about dinner and dessert made a prediction: the word dessert should be better associated with the word dinner than the words breakfast and lunch. (A lot of talking/writing consists of describing reality.) I used Google to test this prediction. I counted the hits returned when I searched “dessert dinner”, “dessert breakfast”, and “dessert lunch”. The prediction turned out to be true: “dessert dinner” had a lot more hits than the other two combinations, even though breakfastlunch and dinner are almost equally common.

I checked about forty other food words: Were they more associated with one meal than others? I found several interesting things.

1. It wasn’t just dessertHoney and fruit were associated with dinner more than breakfast or lunch. The size of the association was very similar in the three cases. For almost all other food words I tested there was little or no association.

2014-03-15 google food basic effect

Here are examples of little or no association.

2014-03-15 google food no effect

2. There were some surprising associations, shown here.

2014-03-15 google food surprises

No surprise that tea is associated with breakfast but why is potato associated with lunch? French fries? Why is nuts associated with dinner? Do nuts contain something that improves sleep?

For each food I computed a “dinner effect” meaning the log(dinner count) minus the average of log(breakfast count) and log(lunch count). Here is a kind of histogram of those values.

2014-03-15 google food histogram

The outlier status of nuts, fruit, honey and dessert is clear.

These findings support (a) the original idea (because the original idea led to them), (b) the importance of the original idea (because the association is so clear) and (c) use of Google to learn what people do. Word associations are influenced by many things, no doubt; these results suggest actual behavior is a strong influence. Use of Google to study behavior is free, public, fast, and convenient.

I was surprised the results were so clear. I suspect the explanation is that sweets taste better closer to bedtime. Dessert, honey and fruit differ in many ways; the similarity of size of association suggests that the association is due to what they share (sugar).

I hereby give you permission to eat dessert with dinner.

17 Responses to “The Wisdom of Google: “Dessert”, “Honey” and “Fruit” Closer to “Dinner” than “Breakfast” or “Lunch””

  1. Jeremy Says:

    Breakfast seems to me the most commonly eaten sweet meal. Often breakfast is nothing but some pastry, cake, or dessert, in many countries (jam is a breakfast food, cereal, pain au choclate, etc). Dinner is always real food perhaps followed by a desert, but never just a desert like breakfast often is.

  2. gwern Says:

    So, in your Anglosphere-customized-search-results, dessert is associated with dinner. …did anyone actually doubt that?

    What happens when you look at Google results in, say, Urdu?

  3. Sara Says:

    Very interesting post.

  4. Adam Says:

    I got 5.6 million hits for “dessert” and “breakfast” in Chinese; 14.7 million hits for “dessert” and “dinner” in Chinese.

  5. Adam Says:

    Tons of hits for honey and breakfast though! It seems drinking honey water for breakfast is very popular in the Chinese speaking world. Even my wife does it.

  6. Jeremy Says:

    The problem is the word “dessert”. The definition of that is something that comes after a meal, usually dinner.

    Do a search for “sweet” and I am sure it will come up more associated with breakfast than dinner. As I said above, breakfast is often primarily sweet while dinner is always non-sweet + perhaps some sweet at the end.

    Sweet in the morning seems far more prevalent than the other way around. Also, afternoon snacks are often sweet as well.

    It would seem, then, that traditionally, while dessert would often follow lunch or dinner, those meals were always largely non-sweet, and sweet was far more associated with early morning and afternoon eating and that sweet was only a minor part of evening eating.

  7. Seth Roberts Says:

    The results for dessert are very close to the results for fruit and honey. All three should be explained the same way.

    Where is the word dessert defined as you say (“something that comes after a meal, usually dinner”)? I cannot find a definition of dessert that includes “usually dinner” or something like that. That is not the meaning I learned.

  8. Seth Roberts Says:

    yes, drinking honey with breakfast is very popular in China. I wonder if that has something to do with high rates of diabetes in China. Maybe the problem is not how much sweets they eat but when they eat them.

  9. daz Says:

    another confounding factor, for some people dinner could be lunch…

    From wiki,
    “Dinner usually refers to the most significant meal of the day, which can be the noon or the evening meal.
    However, the term “dinner” can have many different meanings depending on the culture; it may mean a meal of any size eaten at any time of day.[1][2]
    Historically, it referred to the first meal of the day, eaten around noon, and is still occasionally used for a noontime meal if it is a large or main meal.
    However, the meaning as the evening meal, generally the largest of the day, is becoming standard in the English-speaking world.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinner

  10. dearieme Says:

    My childhood breakfast was porridge followed by either a kipper or bacon and eggs. The Dutch like ham and cheese at breakfast, in my experience. So that’s the civilised world covered: maybe the rest eat jam.

  11. daz Says:

    when i was growing up in the UK in the 70′s,
    from memory, my mum called me in for dinner for the early evening meal, whereas my mates mum called him in for Tea (he had has ‘dinner’ at lunch time).

    & then there’s the term supper as well, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supper

  12. daz Says:

    since i’ve linked the wiki’s for dinner & supper, i may as well add the Tea wiki link as well,
    that’s Tea as meal (not as a drink),
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tea_(meal)

  13. mikimoonmouse Says:

    Seth, you are clearly no cafe drinker !

  14. mikimoonmouse Says:

    In France there is a saying that breakfast in Germany is the beginning of a laborious day, while in France it is the end of a wonderful night. Maybe breakfast is a belated dessert.

  15. dearieme Says:

    Ahoy, Seth. The OEJM speaks:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2582867/Saturated-fat-DOESNT-cause-heart-disease-all.html

  16. gwern Says:

    > I cannot find a definition of dessert that includes “usually dinner” or something like that. That is not the meaning I learned.

    I suggest getting a better dictionary. From the OED, first definition of ‘dessert’:

    > dessert
    >
    > (dɪˈzɜːt)
    >
    > Also 7–8 desert, 8 des-, disart, 9 desert.
    >
    > [a. F. dessert (Estienne 1539) ‘removal of the dishes, dessert’, f. desservir to remove what has been served, to clear (the table), f. des-, L. dis- + servir to serve.]
    >
    > 1. a.1.a A course of fruit, sweetmeats, etc. served after a dinner or supper; ‘the last course at an entertainment’ (J.).
    >
    >    1600 W. Vaughan Direct. Health (1633) ii. ix. 54 Such eating, which the French call desert, is unnaturall.    1666 Pepys Diary 12 July, The dessert coming, with roses upon it, the Duchesse bid him try.    1708 W. King Cookery 261 ‘Tis the dessert that graces all the feast.    1739 R. Bull tr. Dedekindus’ Grobianus 96 If the Guests may pocket the Desart.    1834 Lytton Pompeii iv. iii, The dessert or last course was already on the table.    1846 J. Baxter Libr. Pract. Agric. (ed. 4) II. 69 The Medlar‥when in a state of incipient decay is employed for the dessert.    1875 Jowett Plato (ed. 2) III. 696 Pleasant kinds of dessert, with which we amuse ourselves after dinner.

    Seth: The quotations do not support the definition. They are consistent with “after a meal”.

  17. Kirk Says:

    I agree that the term ‘dessert’ is associated with dinner/supper. An alternative analysis would look at the number of ‘defined’ breakfasts on the published menus of ‘diners’ such as Dennys. (Note: this is an American analysis.) Glancing at the menu at dennys.com, I see 26 defined items in the Breakfast section (not including the last one, Breakfast Sides). Some are sweet, some are not. The sales figures probably aren’t available, so one has to count simply by availability. Without looking at actual ingredients (using the names), I count seven as being primarily sweet (such as the French Toast Slam). But even those customers who order a non-sweet selection could spread jam on their bread and put sugar in their coffee.