How Cleaning Products Trick Your Brain Into Drinking Them

Packaging things that can kill you to look like fruit juice is a bad idea.

Jordan Pearson

Jordan Pearson

No matter how smart you think you are, absentmindedly taking a sip of Lemon Pledge when you expected lemonade is pretty much guaranteed to humble you, if it doesn't kill you first.

The idiocy of our easily-tricked brains is a great equalizer of sorts, but it's also a really dangerous thing when it comes to Food Imitating Products (FIPs)—goods like household cleaners with packaging designed to look like they contain something that definitely won't end you if you ingest it. And they've been killing people. 

In 2006, a study from the Texas Poison Control Centre indicted Fabuloso, a particularly tasty-looking bottle of sodium dodecylbenzene sulfonate, in a series of accidental ingestions. In 2011, the European Commission brought cases of risks to children related to FIP ingestion to light in a report on consumer safety.

According to new research conducted at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the cause of these accidents is neurological in nature. Our brains interpret these objects as "visual metaphors" for food, which stimulates regions of the brain that have been associated with visual food processing.

The visual stimuli in the fMRI experiment. (a) Standardized Cottage Happy Shower Tequila Sunrise (b) Standardized Joker fruit juice (c) Standardized Visior(d) Standardized bleach. Image: PLOS One

Although FIPs are well known to regulators—the European Union's rapid alert system for non-food products, RAPEX, has been warning people about things like bath oil that looks and sort of tastes like beer since 2001—the neurological and environmental factors that collide in that moment of confusion before accidentally poisoning yourself have remained largely unknown.

In their paper, published yesterday on PLOS One, the researchers described how they first analyzed over 30,000 calls to the Marseille Poison Control Center in France over a 14-month period to find out what kind of behaviours led people to ingest certain products. Of the thousands of records they scoured, just 44 were selected because the FIP ingested was a hygiene product, identifiable by its brand name, and taken at home, by a healthy adult.

According to their results, more liquid products were accidentally ingested than solids, and callers frequently cited the packaging, labelling, and otherwise visual aspects of the products they slugged as confusing factors. 

However, while most callers suggested that the visual appearance of these products led to them being ingested, the researchers noted that highly subjective factors could also be at play. To find out what exactly was going on in these cases, neurologically speaking, they scanned some brains.

Orbitofrontal and insular cortex stimulation in response to visual identification of two different FIPs. Image: PLOS One

The researchers performed fMRI brain scans on test subjects as they looked at various non-food objects, some of which didn't look like food at all, like a "classic" bottle of bleach. Others were a little trickier, like Cottage Happy Shower Tequila Sunrise, a shower gel that looks like something a sugar-addled teen would squirt into their mouth before kickflipping down the driveway and sounds like a drink my weird uncle would whip up after already being a few deep. The control object was a regular old juice box.

The researchers presented these objects to the subjects in quick succession and asked them to determine whether it was the same as the previous one or not. None of the test subjects made an error in this trial, verbally at least. But their brain scans told a different story. 

According to the researchers, although the participants didn't slip up when it came to identifying fruit juice and shower gel, both of the objects stimulated their insular cortex, fusiform gyru, and orbitofrontal cortex—all regions of the brain that have previously been identified as playing important roles in visually identifying food.

There's a lesson to be learned here. Even though subjects were not tricked in the end by the hygiene products that looked like food, their brains were, at some level. According to the researchers, this is impetus enough to conduct more neuroimaging research on the novel case of FIP ingestion by healthy adults. 

It also might be an indicator that packaging bottles of shit that can kill you to look like fruit juice is not the best idea in the first place, because our brains are idiots.