Federal, state and city policies aimed at promoting healthy eating have traditionally focused on providing consumers with nutritional information. However, research from Carnegie Mellon University, published in a recent issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, shows that making healthier food more convenient as well as providing nutritional information can help individuals make better choices.
"We wanted to explore how different kinds of interventions would impact behavior, including the standard approach of providing recommended calorie intake as well as subtler attempts to point people in a healthier direction," said Jessica Wisdom, a lead author of the study and Ph.D. student in social and decision sciences.
Patrons of a fast-food restaurant were invited to participate in the study. To test how convenience factors into decision-making, menus listed five of 10 sandwich options as "featured sandwiches" on the first page.
The "featured" menu was designed to be more convenient to order from and contained either five high-calorie, five low-calorie or a mix of high- and low-calorie sandwich options. The research showed that featuring healthy sandwiches, thereby making them the most convenient, had a large and significant impact on the caloric content of the sandwich purchased.
To test how nutritional information impacted decisions, customers were given one of two menus, either one with calorie content listed prominently next to each sandwich, side dish and drink, or a menu without any nutritional information. In addition, half the customers received a recommendation for how many calories they should eat per day.
"Providing calorie content reduced people's choices by about 100 calories," said Julie Downs, an assistant research professor in the Department of Social and Decision Sciences. "But the convenience factor — being provided with a menu of featured lower calorie sandwiches — also seemed to be effective, indicating the potential for a more mixed approach."
Additionally, the research team found that providing daily calorie intake recommendations only affected normal-weight individuals and did not affect the food choices of those who were overweight.
George Loewenstein, the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon, has approached the obesity problem from multiple angles, including the use of financial incentives to encourage weight loss.
"We need to find methods that will make it easier and cheaper for people to eat healthy foods; methods that will complement calorie labels," Loewenstein said. "If manipulations work over time, they might prove to be habit forming — creating long-term changes in diet."
Related Links: Social & Decision Sciences