Low-Calorie Menu Categories Reduce Calorie Posting Benefits

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Jeffrey R. Parker
Assistant Professor of Marketing
Robinson College of Business – Georgia State University

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings of the study?

Mr. Parker: Recently, there has been quite a bit of debate about the effectiveness of providing dish-specific calorie information (a practice called “calorie posting”) on restaurant menus in terms of the healthiness of consumers’ food choices. Some results suggest that such labels lead to lower-calorie choices, while other research shows that there is no effect. We examined one factor that might impact the effectiveness of calorie posting: the practice of grouping low-calorie options on a menu and labeling this category accordingly (i.e., incorporating a low-calorie menu/category in the menu)—which we call “calorie organizing”—as opposed to simply allowing them to appear in their natural categories with the caloric content appearing in the dish descriptions (e.g., Sandwiches, Salads, Pastas, etc.).

On the surface it seems obvious that making low-calorie options easier to find—by giving them their own labeled category on the menu—would bolster the positive effects of calorie posting. However, we found the opposite: additionally calorie organizing an already calorie-posted menu regularly eliminates the benefits that calorie posting can have.

We argued and found evidence indicating that the underlying cause of this effect stems from how consumers make decisions. Restaurant menus are often too large for a consumer to seriously consider all of the dishes. Some consumers typically eliminate large portions of the menu on the basis of simple criteria (e.g., “I don’t like seafood.”, “It’s too early to eat pasta.”, etc. ). Since consumers generally make negative inferences about low-calorie dishes (e.g., “They don’t taste good.”, “They are small dishes.”, etc.) they are likely to summarily dismiss all of the low-calorie options early in the decision process when the menu is calorie-organized (i.e., has grouped the low-calorie dished and labeled the new category accordingly). Thus, they are likely to choose as poorly as they would were they given no calorie information. In contrast, when the menu is just calorie-posted, and the low-calorie dishes appear in their natural categories, these dishes are unlikely to be dismissed in the early choice-simplification stages. Thus, low-calorie dishes are likely to be seriously considered in the final decision process, during which the pros and cons of dishes can be more comprehensively traded off, and are therefore more likely to be chosen.

MedicalResearch.com: Were any of the findings unexpected?

Mr. Parker: All of predictions derived directly from the intersection of previous theories and findings. In that way, none of our findings were unexpected. In terms of intuitive beliefs and expectations, these results deviate from most people’s expectations.

MedicalResearch.com What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Mr. Parker: We hope that our findings will help consumers make better decisions. Sometimes big changes in behavior can come from simply pointing out behaviors consumers are unaware they are in engaging. Further, our results suggest that the negative effects of calorie organization diminish significantly when consumers take longer before selecting a dish (either voluntarily or because they must wait before being able to order). Thus, simply requesting that patients take their time in deciding which dish to order may lead to healthier choices. Alternatively, specifically explaining our results might get some patients to realize that they do tend to choose less healthy dishes when low-calorie menus are available.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Mr. Parker: We present some findings that the results reverse when the low-calorie dishes are grouped but the category is given an appealing label (e.g., “Favorites”). Further research in this direction will certainly be beneficial. Of particular importance, as is the case with all research that hopes to help consumers make better decisions, will be replicating these results in a variety of circumstances and contexts with an eye toward determining the robustness of our results and identifying important boundary conditions.


How and When Grouping Low-Calorie Options Reduces the Benefits of Providing Dish-Specific Calorie Information

Journal of Consumer Research April 2014