The United States faces an obesity paradox: As healthful foods enjoy greater popularity, our obesity rate continues to climb.
“In our black-and-white view, most food is good or not good,” note Pierre Chandon, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at the INSEAD business school in France, and Brian Wansink, PhD, a professor of marketing at Cornell University in New York. “When we see a fast-food restaurant like Subway advertising its low-calorie sandwiches, we think, ‘It’s OK: I can eat a sandwich there and then have a high-calorie dessert’—when, in fact, some Subway sandwiches contain more calories than a Big Mac.”
In a study they conducted, Drs. Chandon and Wansink asked consumers to guess how many calories sandwiches from two restaurants contained. The participants estimated the sandwiches had 35% fewer calories when they came from restaurants claiming to be healthy, as opposed to those from eateries that didn’t make such claims.
The result of this calorie underestimation? Consumers chose beverages, side dishes and desserts that contained up to 131% more calories when the main course they ordered was positioned as “healthy”—even though the “healthy” main course actually contained 50% more calories than the “unhealthy” one.
“These studies help explain why the success of fast-food restaurants serving lower-calorie foods has not led to the expected reduction in total calorie intake and in obesity rates,” the authors write in “The Biasing Health Halos of Fast Food Restaurant Health Claims: Lower Calorie Estimates and Higher Side-Dish Consumption Intentions,” published in the October 2007 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
So, what should consumers do?
Examine whether a restaurant’s health claims apply to the particular foods you want to order.
“More generally, we need to think about food not just qualitatively—as in ‘good food/bad food’—but also quantitatively (as in “how many calories are in this meal?’),” they note.