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See Salad, Eat Fries: When Healthy Menus Backfire

Duke research has weighty nutritional and policy implications.

April 21, 2009
Cheeseburger and fries

Schools and other establishments concerned with promoting healthy behaviors may need to take an extreme approach and eliminate all unhealthy food.

DURHAM, N.C. –- Just seeing a salad on the menu seems to push some consumers to make a less healthy meal choice, according a Duke University researcher.

 

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’s Fuqua School of Business, who led 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 became much more likely to take the fries.

The team’s findings are available in the online version of the Journal of Consumer Research, and will appear in its October 2009 print edition.

 

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,” Fitzsimons said. “There is clearly public demand for healthy options, so we wanted to know why people aren’t following through and purchasing those items.”

 

Working with co-authors Keith Wilcox and Lauren Block of Baruch College, and Beth Vallen of Loyola College in Maryland, 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,” Fitzsimons said. “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 showed the same effect. “We also had participants choose from menus contrasting a bacon cheeseburger, chicken sandwich and fish sandwich with a veggie burger," 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," Block said. 

 

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," 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 behaviors may need to take an extreme approach and eliminate all unhealthy food, Fitzsimons said. “It sounds quite drastic, but because the effect of mixing healthy and unhealthy choices is so powerful, we would suggest that the safest way to get children to eat well is to take the pizza, fries and other junk foods completely out of schools, and replace them with healthy foods.”

 

The team also suggests that consumers might empower themselves through awareness.  “This is one of those human quirks that we may be able to overcome if we are conscious of it and make a concerted effort to stick to the healthy choices we know we should be making,” Block said.