Healthy fast-food options encourage unhealthy choices

  • April 27, 2009
  • Daniel Palmer

Just seeing a salad on the menu can push some consumers to make a less healthy meal choice, new research has discovered.

It’s an effect called “vicarious goal fulfillment”, in which a person can feel a goal has been met if they have taken some small action, like considering the salad without ordering it, said Gavan Fitzsimons – Professor of Marketing and Psychology at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, and leader of the research.

In a lab experiment, participants possessing high levels of self-control related to food choices (as assessed by a pre-test) avoided french fries, the least healthy item on a menu, when presented with only unhealthy choices. But when a side salad was added to this menu they, surprisingly, became much more likely to take the fries.

Although fast-food restaurants and vending machine operators have increased their healthy offerings in recent years, “analysts have pointed out that sales growth in the fast-food industry is not coming from healthy menu items, but from increased sales of burgers and fries,” Mr Fitzsimons advised. “There is clearly public demand for healthy options, so we wanted to know why people aren’t following through and purchasing those items.”

To illustrate this point, the world’s largest fast-food chain, McDonald’s, has continued to report strong sales figures despite global economic fears, but they have rarely mentioned their healthy choice options. Upon releasing their first quarter results last week, they said core products like the Quarter Pounder were driving growth along with chicken, breakfast and beverage products.

Unhealthy choices

Working with co-authors Keith Wilcox and Lauren Block of Baruch College, and Beth Vallen of Loyola College in Maryland, Mr Fitzsimons asked research participants to select a food item from one of two pictorial menus. Half of the participants saw a menu of unhealthy items, including only french fries, chicken nuggets and a baked potato with butter and sour cream. The rest of the participants were given the same three options, plus the choice of a side salad.

When the side salad was added, a few consumers did actually choose it. However, the vast majority of consumers did not, and went toward unhealthier options. Ironically, this effect was strongest among those consumers who normally had high levels of self-control.

“In this case, the presence of a salad on the menu has a liberating effect on people who value healthy choices,” Mr Fitzsimons advised. “We find that simply seeing, and perhaps briefly considering, the healthy option fulfills their need to make healthy choices, freeing the person to give in to temptation and make an unhealthy choice. In fact, when this happens people become so detached from their health-related goals, they go to extremes and choose the least healthy item on the menu.”

Two other test menus indicated the same effect. “We also had participants choose from menus contrasting a bacon cheeseburger, chicken sandwich and fish sandwich with a veggie burger,” Ms Block said. “And we tried chocolate covered Oreos, original Oreos and golden Oreos against a 100-calorie pack of Oreos and obtained the same result.”

“Adding the healthier option caused people with high self-control to choose the least healthy option possible. Even though it was not their first choice before the healthy option was included,” she added.

The team’s findings suggest that encouraging people to make better choices may require significant effort on the part of both food service providers and customers.

“What this shows is that adding one or two healthy items to a menu is essentially the worst thing you can do,” Mr Fitzsimons said. “Because, while a few consumers will choose the healthy option, it causes most consumers to make drastically worse choices.”

Schools and other establishments concerned with promoting healthy behaviours may need to take an extreme approach and eliminate all unhealthy food, Mr Fitzsimons suggested.

The team’s findings have been published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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