The Ulterior Motive Behind Free Drinking Straws

Have you ever considered the reason restaurants supply a straw with every drink, when serving soda, ice tea, or other non-alcoholic beverages?

"Customers expect them," you might say. And you'd be right. Customers do expect them at McDonalds or Starbucks. But those same people don't expect them at home. In fact, most of the people who drink through straws in restaurants do not use them at home.

Restaurant customers have been trained to ask for and expect straws. That's a more accurate explanation. How did it happen? Marketing, and repetition. Straws have been in common use so long that most of us have grown up with them. Straw at the restaurant, plain glassware at home has become the ordinary way of thinking for many of us.

What's the result? We drink more in restaurants. That's why they do it.

For the entire history of human evolution, splashing a drink on your face or at least your lips was an accepted and normal part of drinking. The introduction of straws changed the rules. Over tens of thousands of years, our bodies evolved to associate wet lips with satisfied thirst. Drinks that are ingested via straw don't touch out lips, and so do not satisfy our thirst as quickly. The result: we drink more.

Nowhere in the many articles chronicling the history of drinking straws have I read this simple truth. Do they teach it at McDonalds and Wendy's franchise school? I wonder.

Try it yourself next time you order a Coke or ice tea . . . skip the straw. Do you drink less? I wager you will.

It's an intersting point to ponder.

And how exactly does the lack of a straw reduce consumption? I'm not sure, but I have some ideas. One is this: you don't feel the need to take a drink while your lips are still wet from the previous sip. The straw gets around this inhibition, because your lips never get wet from the drink.

An interesting fact that reinforces this theory of mine relates to the carrying capacity of modern straws. Did you know that the plastic straws at today's fast food restaurants are 50% larger than the straws at soda fountains 50 years ago? It's true. Look at some old straws in a museum if you don't believe me. Stimulation of consumption is the only reason I can see for increasing the diameter of a straw.

As a child, I never once heard the complaint, This straw is no good! I can't suck enough juice through it!" Did you?

But the marketers were watching. If they could cause a drink to be ingested more rapidly, they reasoned, they'd be more likely to sell refills. And they were right. It worked. The high capacity drinking straw was a solution in search of a problem, and it's been a huge success for the foodservice industry. But has it helped us, the eaters?

There has been much made recently of the supersizing of American food. The high capacity plastic drinking straw has made a major contribution to the success of supersized drinks, alongside our supersized meals. High capacity eating and drinking have grown up together in America.

There are some drinks that are served with toppings - the head on beer, the whipped cream on hot chocolate - and the topping is savored on your lips and in your mouth. It's a part of the experience of drinking those liquids. And as a result, liquids like that are seldom drunk with straws, even today.


Matt DuFresne said…
Fascinating review of 'straw theory'. I can actually add to that from the point of view of the restaraunt owner. I have a business assocaite that was , at one time, the treasurer/cfo of Friendly's corporation. This person was also very involved in litigation reduction and insurance programming for the company. What he told me is that glass is basically indistinguishable from ice in drinks. The high heat dish washers and dryers in restaurants tend to 'dry' out the glass and make them brittle. Seems that this can and has resulted in 'glass chips' making their way in to drinks of consumers. Utilizing a straw stopped larger glass hunks from being ingested, avoided chipped edges that got by servers from cutting patrons, and/or a brittle glass hitting a persons teeth and smashing. As a side not it also "usually' results in less glass handeling. Ever notice that we, or most of us, bring our head down to the straw rather then list the glass? Look around a restaurant and see.

So, from this person's perspective it was saftey and insurance concern that was drafted company wide. I can also imagine the fact that the restuarant association and thier insurers pass on this information around the country in an effort to lower insurance pools and premiums. Made sense to me and he DID have a very high position in the company.

As for the bigger diameter straw...I would agree that it is purely impatience. I want to drink my drink NOW, not in an hour which it would take if using a thin straw. I would have to review literature on wether it makes you not 'quench' as quickly as with 'glugging' a drink. Appetite and thirst control involve many factors including hormone regulation, stretch responses in the gut and electrolyte balance...but for now, I'll buy it.

Cover looks AWESOME! But the next time you have a local talk you better let me know!!
Cynthia Bronco said…
I enjoy the entertainment value of straws. At home, I simply don't have the opportunity to shoot the paper wrappers across the table at my family members. I believe that enhances the experience of dining out. Also, I'm less likely to spill diet pepsi on myself while driving if I'm using a straw.
On the other hand, I don't support straws for use on Victory Lane. Tony Stewart could lose an eye, and that just would not be good.
Polly said…
I agree that straws encourage swift consumption of beverages, and therefore they benefit the server. Straws at fast food restaurants are often wider, catering to the small clumsy mouths of children. But I always thought straws were invented because they are more sterile than drinking directly from the rim of the glass.
Simon said…
Contrary to the ideas expressed in this article, my personal experience suggests that I drink less and feel "full" faster when drinking through a straw. This is especially noticeable when I use a straw in a can of Coke vs. pouring the contents of the can into a drinking glass.
I suspect that rather than there being some type of conspiracy at habd to get people to consume more, the use of straws in restaurants was popularized through the serving of truly cold drinks thanks to modern refrigeration. It isn't pleasant to have a cold drink hit your teeth directly - especially if you have hot/cold sensitivity, so a straw makes it more pleasant. Moreover, the advent of the malted milk or milkshake necessitated large-bore straws to accomodate the thickness of the liquid. If you're skeptical, try drinking a McDonalds shake through a small bore straw :-)
Use glass drinking straws and you will be hooked on a new beverage sipping experience without risking toxins leaching into your drinks. They are reusable and will save the landfill as well! Check the glassdharma(com) site to find more statistics on plastic waste due to fast food giants supplying the planet with drinking straws made from plastic.

Drinking straws are recomended by dentists to avoid teeht staining from dark colored beverages.
Thomas Rice said…
Why would a restaurant want you too drink more of its product when you pay one flat rate for unlimited refills at almost every restaurant? It doesn't matter if you drink 1 cup of soda or 5, you will pay roughly $2 at most places, thus the restaurant obviously would rather you drink only 1 cup. Now after that fact, the rest of the theory is unnecessar, sorry.
Allen Prunty said…
Actually, I am finding quite the opposite. Most places (with the exception of McDonalds and those that serve milkshakes that have the larger straws for the shakes) are using skinny straws that slow down the drinking experience. Skyline Chili, for instance, once had a larger diameter straw now has switched to straws that are 1/2 the diameter.

It SLOWS down your drinking... meaning they have to give away less free refills.

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