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That Looks Healthy — Gimme the Fries

Think the world is a healthier place now that McDonalds has salads and yogurt on the menu? Think again.

According to research to be published in the October print edition of the Journal of Consumer Research, putting healthy choices on a menu actually causes some consumers to make less healthy purchases.

"We noticed that over the last 10 to 15 years the American population was becoming increasing unhealthy ... (but) at the same time, there has been a dramatic increase in healthy options at fast food restaurants, in vending machines, etc.," said Duke University professor Gavan Fitzsimons, explaining what inspired he and three other researchers from Baruch College and Loyola College to investigate the impact of the mere presence of healthy menu options on consumer behavior.

Throughout the study, participants were asked to select food items off menus that either did or did not include a healthy option. For example, if given the choice between French fries, chicken nuggets and a baked potato, what would you choose?

According to the results of the study, if you are considered a "high self-control" person (i.e. someone who has strong associations between minor achievements and the accomplishment of a long-term goal), you will likely stay away from the French fries, choosing them less than 10 percent of the time.

But toss a salad (excuse the pun) onto the menu and high self-control individuals choose French fries nearly half the time.

The effect was the same when the food choices were from the same category of products. For example, in one experiment individuals were presented with a choice between chocolate-covered Oreos, original Oreos and golden Oreos (a "neutral choice") or a 100-calorie pack of Oreo cookies (the "healthy" choice). The researchers found that the likelihood a high self-control participant would chose the least healthy chocolate-covered Oreo option jumped from 18 to 39 percent when the 100-calorie pack was included in the choices.

Fitzsimons used a concept called "vicarious goal fulfillment" to explain the change in behavior, saying, "Essentially, (the) consumer's goal is satisfied without them actually performing an action. They simply see a healthy option, and their goal is satisfied." (Miller-McCune noted something similar in February with people who were flashed a "healthy" message and then went on to eat more just after than did those who saw a neutral message.)

The theory of vicarious goal fulfillment was supported by the last of the study's experiments, in which the researchers asked individuals to rank the similarity of the menu options presented to them. "When the choice set included a healthy option, it increased the perceived similarity between the most indulgent option and the other relatively unhealthy options for individuals who were high in self-control," the authors wrote. With the high self-control individuals perceiving less of a difference between the "non-healthy" items when a salad was on the menu, they tended to fixate on and select the least healthy option.

But what if someone has low self-control?

In this case, it turns out that the effect is reversed. Without a healthy option, persons with low self-control choose the least healthy option about half the time in all the experiments. Include a healthy choice, however, and the odds of that decision drop to less than a third.

"When the healthy option is added, it ironically appears to activate a health-related goal in those chronically low in self-control, but satisfies the goals for (the high self-controllers) that it is already active in," said Fitzsimons.

When it comes to altering menus to promote healthy diets, the research team believes this study underscores the need, especially in places like school cafeterias, to remove the least healthy food options from menus rather than simply adding more healthy options.

"It is advisable for consumers to try to avoid situations with lots of unhealthy options and a few healthy ones," Fitzsimons added, "The vast majority of consumers simply end up failing and eating a really unhealthy option. If one can't avoid these situations, then at least we can remind ourselves that we are extremely vulnerable in these settings, much more so than we believe."

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