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Fries and comfort foods most often requested for last meals on Death Row

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What do inmates order for their last meal, how is the last meal related to guilt? Famously, Ricky Ray Rector asked to save his untouched pecan pie for after his execution. In new research, scientists found that after analyzing the last meals of 247 people who were executed in the United States between 2002 and 2006, found the hypothesis to be accurate.

Those who denied guilt were 2.7 times more likely to decline a last meal than those who admitted guilt. Furthermore those who were admittedly guilty requested 34% more calories of food and were more likely to request brand name, comfort-food items. You can check out the essay, "Death Row Confessions and the Last Meal Test of Innocence," by Kevin M. Kniffin and Brian Wansink. It's published online in the December 30, 2013 issue of the journal, Laws 2014

It seems if someone is innocent, or insists he or she is, the individual is more likely to decline a last meal

Social circumstance often gives meals meaning, so it is logical that the last meals of those on death row may signify something beyond taste preference. While there are many factors that could contribute to last meal selection, this study is the first to provide evidence of a link between food selection and self-perceived guilt or innocence. These findings may be useful to the legal community in further assessing the innocence and perceived innocence of those who have received the death penalty in the past, says a January 23, 2014 Cornell Food & Brand Lab news release by Katherine Baildon, "Death row confessions and the last meal test of innocence."

What types of food do inmates order for their last meal? In one study, comfort foods were ordered, according to an August 29, 2012 CBS news article on research, "Study: Death Row inmates pick comfort foods for last meals." According to that article, last meals tend to be high in calories and heavy on meat for inmates on Death Row.

A last meal would probably be different for a prisoner on his or her last day behind bars before release to freedom after doing time. But for a last meal that the individual knows will be the last, those on Death Row before they're executed order the tastiest but most unhealthy comfort foods because the know what harm can the food do with a few hours left in this world?

Most ordered food is french fries

The prisoners on Death row mostly order for last meals French fries, soda, ice cream, hamburgers, chicken, steak and pie. Those are commonly requested items among inmates imminently facing execution, according to Cornell University researchers who studied 193 last meal requests in the United States, the CBS news article explains.

Researchers from Cornell noted that more than two-thirds of the condemned ordered fried foods, mostly french fries, and they ordered dessert at about the same rate. Inmates were five times more likely to request soda than milk. The study appeared in the December 2012 issue of the journal Appetite. You can check out the abstract of that study, "Death row nutrition. Curious conclusions of last meals." Researchers are Brian Wansink and Kevin M. Kniffin in that study.

Public fascination with last meals

The growing macabre fascination with “last meals” offers a window into one’s true consumption desires when one’s value of the future is discounted close to zero, explains that study's abstract. But in contrast to popular anecdotes and individual case studies, we created an empirical catalog of actual last meals – the final food requests of 247 individuals executed in the United States during a recent five-year period.

The researcher's content analyses reveal three key findings: (1) the average last meal is calorically rich (2756 calories) and proportionally averages 2.5 times the daily recommended servings of protein and fat, (2) the most frequent requests are also calorie dense: meat (83.9%), fried food (67.9%), desserts (66.3%), and soft drinks (60.0%), and (3) 39.9% requested branded foods or beverages.

How food is used to mediate feelings of stress and distress

These findings are respectfully consistent with a model of environmentally contingent temporal discounting, notes the study's abstract, and they are consistent with studies of how food is used to mediate feelings of stress and distress. Given that some people who are warned about the ill effects of obesity might counterintuitively engage in unhealthy overconsumption, the findings also suggest further study relating to the artificial use of mortality salience in campaigns against obesity, the study's abstract notes. But the fascination with last meals for the condemned continue, and Cornell University has published another study on the topic this year.

General trends found by analyzing last meal orders

In the most recent Cornell study in 2013-2014, researchers found that the final meals of condemned prisoners are an enduring source of fascination -- whether those convicted of the most heinous crimes opted for a final lobster dinner or canned spaghetti. Requests vary greatly, but the Cornell researchers found some general trends in a quirky bit of research analyzing last meal orders.

This request sparked significant discussion about Rector’s competency – on the basis of his food request. Similarly, in a documentary film about last suppers, artists Bigert and Bergstrom have claimed a connection between whether or not an individual chooses to have a last meal and his or her guilt.

Can last meals reveal more about individuals on death row than their taste preference? Some have argued there is significance embedded in death row last meal decisions.

In each case, there is an assertion that last meals are relevant to the legitimacy of an execution. It is these signals that Cornell University researcher Kevin Kniffin examined in this self-funded study. In particular, he studied whether an individual who has accepted guilt—by apologizing or confessing—is more likely to indulge in a last meal. He also looked at how their meals differ from those who maintain that they are innocent.

Social circumstance often gives meals meaning, so it is logical that the last meals of those on death row may signify something beyond taste preference. While there are many factors that could contribute to last meal selection, this study is the first to provide evidence of a link between food selection and self-perceived guilt or innocence.

Kniffin hypothesized that those who perceived themselves as innocent would request fewer calories or decline to receive a last meal altogether

These findings may be useful to the legal community in further assessing the innocence and perceived innocence of those who have received the death penalty in the past. In the Ricky Rector case, the essay's abstract published in the journal Laws 2014, notes that what lawyers call a "Post hoc" analyses of the case of Rector v. Arkansas, it has been said that numerous people have regularly highlighted that the defendant requested that part of his last meal be saved so that he could it eat later.

While the observation is typically raised as part of arguments that Rector was incompetent and unfit for execution, the more basic fact is that commentators have drawn important inferences about Rector’s mental state from how he treated his last meal, the latest research explains.

In this new essay, the authors draw upon multiple disciplines in order to apply the same inferential logic to a much broader sample and explore the question of whether traditionally customized last meals might offer signals of defendants’ guilt or innocence. To investigate this, the content of last-meal requests and last words reported for people executed in the United States during a recent five-year period were examined.

Consistent with the idea that declination of the last meal is equivalent to a signal of (self-perceived) innocence, those who denied guilt were 2.7 times as likely to decline a last meal than people who admitted guilt (29% versus 8%). Consistent with the complementary theory that people who admit guilt are relatively more “at peace” with their sentence, these individuals requested 34% more calories of food than the rest of the sample (2786 versus 2085 calories).

A third finding is that those who denied guilt also tended to eat significantly fewer brand-name food items. Previous discussions of last meals have often lacked quantitative measurements. However, this systematic analysis shows that last meal requests offer windows into self-perceived or self-proclaimed innocence.

Knowing one’s last meal request and one’s last words can provide valuable new variables for retrospectively assessing the processes that led to past executions, the abstract or the research reports. If you want to find out what condemned people in prison most often order for their last meal, you can check out the sites, "The Last Meals Requested by Death Row Inmates Before Their Executions" and the Business Insider article, "Why Do Death Row Inmates Get Last Meals?"

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