The caloric "distance" between menu items can influence what we choose to eat

The caloric “distance” between menu items can influence what we choose to eat

One of the most popular New Year’s resolutions is to eat healthier and make better decisions when choosing what foods to eat. But a recent study by researchers at Texas A&M AgriLife shows that there are often competing and conflicting forces at work when making food choices.

“Consumers who already know the approximate calorie content of various food options and who are aware of the calorie intake often choose the lowest calorie foods to eat,” said Marco Palma, professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at the College of agriculture and life sciences. director of the Human Behavior Laboratory at Texas A&M University. “However, when multiple food options are presented together on a single menu, the decision to eat healthy may not be as straightforward as the consumer might expect, depending on the relative calorie distance.”

Palma said caloric distance – the difference between the number of calories in food – affects the visceral reaction or gut feeling of tempting food.

portrait of marco palma

Marco Palma is Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M and Director of the Human Behavior Laboratory.


Texas A&M AgriLife

“This relative magnitude difference in food menu options affects a person’s temptation for a food and, ultimately, the person’s food choice,” he said. “If a brownie has 500 calories and an apple has 80 calories, then the calorie distance is 420 calories. Likewise, if an orange contains 60 calories, then the caloric distance between apple and orange is only 20 calories.

Palma said that having a high-calorie item on a menu increases the temptation, making low-calorie items less appealing.

The study was recently published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. In their work, scientists demonstrate how the caloric distance of food choices creates temptation and reduces the benefit of disclosing the calorie count of food to the consumer. Authors include Palma; Samir Huseynov, former Texas A&M doctoral student now at Auburn University; and Ghufran Ahmad from Pakistan National Science and Technology University.

“Specifically, we investigated whether calorie labels can lead consumers to choose lower calorie, healthier foods,” Palma said. “However, we also observed an opposite factor – temptation – when a higher calorie content serves as a signal for a tastier food product.”

Calorie labeling produces conflicting results

The overconsumption of unhealthy and high calorie foods has become a public health crisis. In response, food manufacturers and retailers are now legally required to add calorie information on their labels so consumers can make informed choices about calorie intake.

“However, the relevant literature on the effectiveness of offering low-calorie alternatives has shown mixed results,” said Palma. “Some empirical studies show that calorie labeling decreases calorie intake, while other studies have shown no significant changes or even an increase in calorie consumption. As a result, the impact of calorie information on calorie intake and any potentially moderating factors has remained an unresolved research question. “

He said the theoretical model used by researchers in the study provides a basis for explaining some of the inconsistencies. This helped identify how temptation is increased or decreased based on the menu consumers see and the relative caloric distance between similar items.

The compromise of temptation

Palma said some recent economic models offer insight into factors that could potentially alter the impact of calorie information on food consumption.

In such models, a decision maker derives two types of benefits from a choice: normative utility and utility from temptation. Normative utility is about making long-term, self-improving rational choices, while tempting utility makes choices based on more self-gratifying, short-term impulses.

Researchers model the cost of self-control as the difference in the usefulness of temptation between the more tempting and the less tempting alternatives on a menu. In other words, as an alternative becomes more tempting, the decision maker becomes more vulnerable to choosing the high calorie and more tempting option.

To demonstrate this pattern, the study uses the example of a soda drinker trying to consume fewer calories. In one scenario, the person has a choice between bottled water and a calorie-free soft drink. There is a relatively low temptation tradeoff here as both options have no calories.

In a contrasting scenario, a higher temptation trade-off occurs when the person has to choose between a bottle of water and a regular carbonated calorie drink. With this scenario, the choice imposes a higher self-control cost on the decision maker, because a bottle of regular soda is generally more tempting to the average soda drinker than a calorie-free soda.

“Usually the choices that are more different from the tempting option are more difficult to make,” said Palma. “For a fitting example, overly ambitious New Years resolutions to eat healthier usually fail, as people often take big steps instead of smaller, more manageable ones. Likewise, drastic changes in diet can impose unbearable self-control costs on the decision-maker, which in turn can lead to more frequent self-control failures.

different types of donuts are displayed in a case, with small black labels underneath indicating the calorie content

A choice between two options with a small caloric distance has a low temptation tradeoff.


Chris Hondros / Getty Images

Setting up the study

“Identifying the effect of self-control failures on decision making has always been a challenge,” said Palma. “Additionally, the correlation of visceral feelings with preformed habits further complicates the link between temptation and failure in self-control.”

He said that to help unravel those links, the researchers established a controlled framework in which they could manipulate “tentative” differences in food choices by using similar items that differed in calorie content.

The study model predicted that providing calorie information can attract consumers to low-calorie food choices. Additionally, the researchers factored in the competing factors of the cost of self-control and temptation into their model to show how calorie information can also be ineffective or even backfire.

The researchers conducted two separate experiments – a lab experiment and a field lab experiment conducted at a national restaurant chain.

In the lab experiment, makers were given 40 binary choice menus and were asked to select their favorite snack at the end of the study. The menus each included low and high calorie versions of the same snack. For example, subjects were offered an 80-calorie strawberry gelatin and 10-calorie strawberry gelatin from the same brand.

“This test allowed us to focus on the role of the caloric difference between the alternatives in controlling product and brand preferences,” said Palma. “We explored the causal relationship between temptation distance – or calorie distance – and the likelihood of choosing low-calorie snacks. “

The researchers used a similar design for the restaurant experience.

“We conducted the second experiment at a national chain restaurant using full meals from the restaurant’s menu,” he said. “A ‘no information’ control group received meal descriptions but no calorie information. A “specific information” group received both meal descriptions and calorie information. “

Subjects made food choices from 86 independent binary menus and were only allowed to eat meals inside the restaurant and could not share food with anyone else.

The restaurant experiment allowed researchers to test their hypotheses with real meals in a real restaurant setting. In addition, it allowed them to explore greater relative caloric distances from the snacks of the laboratory experiment. The prices of the meals were the same, and the researchers manipulated the difference in calories by changing the sides.

More information helps make better dietary decisions

Overall, the study found that providing calorie information increases the likelihood of choosing the low-calorie option by 3 to 10 percentage points. However, the impact of calorie information depends on the relative magnitude of the opposing forces behind food choices.

“Specifically, the study shows that there is a significant and positive relationship between the number of calories in snacks and the degree of temptation the snacks generate,” Palma said. “And the effect of the calorie information depends on the relative difference in calories. For example, subjects in lab experiments were more likely to demonstrate self-control and choose low-calorie snacks when they had specific information about their food choices.

While the study shows the importance of providing calorie information, it also shows that the effectiveness of this information largely depends on menus and menu-dependent temptation and self-control costs. . It may also offer a plausible explanation why calorie labeling laws have not produced the desired result of reduced calorie intake.

The study also makes an important contribution by modeling and quantifying menu-dependent self-control and by linking the cost incurred to the food choices encouraged. This finding is particularly relevant because it may have an impact on how restaurants and other food retailers respond to new calorie labeling laws by changing the offerings of products on their menus.

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