The United States CDC says over 42 percent of adults and 18 percent of children are obese. Both numbers continue to rise. This epidemic costs the nation $147 billion (USD) annually. Change is needed to reverse the course of this dangerous trend. Could part of the solution involve restaurant menus?
Research over recent years has indicated that posting nutritional information about the food choices found on restaurant menus may influence diners, both in-person and take-out, to make healthier food choices. In the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare,) a new rule mandated inclusion of calorie information to menus.
Some states across the country adopted this rule even before the ACA was passed. Early anecdotal evidence indicated the information had little impact on consumer behavior. Researchers studying these early-adoption states had similar findings as well.
What conclusion should we draw from this? Are Americans just hopelessly addicted to unhealthy food choices? Or is something else at work?
One possibility suggested by behavioral scientists echoed an old real estate adage. It’s all about location, location, location. The Society for Consumer Psychology and researchers at New York University have put that idea to the test.
These scientists didn’t believe Americans were unwilling to choose lower calorie or healthier items. They believed the nutritional information which was placed on menus to inform them was simply in the wrong spot – to the right of the food items. This, they suggested, was why the labeling legislation failed.
“There is a lot of research showing that the first piece of information people see seems to be given greater weight as they process details, and we wondered if this could have implications for the calorie counts on menus,” says Steven Dallas, PhD, who conducted the studies at New York University. The results were published online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.
The researchers set up a simple test of their hypothesis. Customers waiting in line at a casual chain restaurant were given paper copies of the restaurant menu and asked to circle what they thought they’d be ordering when they sat down. Some of the menus had no nutritional information. The rest were split between having the nutritional information on the right or the left of the food choices.
While it may not seem significant, the results tell a different story. Participants with the nutritional information on the left of the food items ordered food that had an average of 24 percent fewer calories than those ordering from either of the other two menus. “We were surprised to find such a significant difference between the groups,” Dallas says.
Why would this happen? It’s possible that it’s related to a cognitive pattern known as predecisional distortion. This refers to when you draw initial conclusions, then observe any subsequent, related information through the lens of those conclusions.
So if you read information about calorie and nutritional content of food that makes you believe that food is unhealthy, you’re likely to process the information that follows with that negative bias. You read the negative information about the food choice, then judge it based on that. Since most people read left-to-right, placing the nutritional information on the left sets you up for this.
Interestingly, when this was done with a group of Hebrew-speaking Israelis, the opposite effect was noted. Since they read right-to-left, those with calorie and nutritional information to the right of the food choices were more prone to ordering lower calorie and healthier choices.
“What this paper shows is that a trivially simple intervention could increase the power of the calorie information on menus,” Dallas says. “The calorie labeling policy should not necessarily be deemed a failure and could in fact become a powerful tool in combating the obesity epidemic.”
We know obesity is a serious problem. Most public health authorities, physicians and those working in the nutrition and fitness fields will say education is the key component. So is it wrong to use a built-in cognitive pattern to persuade people to make better choices?
In my opinion, if we use this as another tool in the box to help stem the tide of the obesity epidemic, so be it. The way things are going, I think most would agree that we need all the help we can get.
Keep the faith and keep after it!
Journal Reference – Steven K. Dallas, Peggy J. Liu, Peter A. Ubel. Don’t Count Calorie Labeling Out: Calorie Counts on the Left Side of Menu Items Lead to Lower Calorie Food Choices. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2018; DOI: 10.1002/jcpy.1053