A new study by Tulane University shows that offering fast food customers a smaller portion may be a more effective approach to the obesity epidemic than posting calorie counts.
The study found that when servers asked customers whether they’d like to “downsize” starchy side dishes at a Chinese fast-food restaurant, as many as a third gladly did so—saving about 200 calories per meal.
Researchers from Harvard University, Duke University, and New York University also participated in the study.
“Our goal was to test whether the invitation to downsize a meal component would be embraced by consumers and, importantly, whether the approach would be more effective than a purely information-based approach—in this case calorie labeling,” said lead study author Janet Schwartz, assistant professor of marketing at Tulane’s A.B. Freeman School of Business.
As reported in the journal Health Affairs, Schwartz and her research team conducted several field experiments at a single Chinese quick-service restaurant. In each case, servers asked customers selecting sides, “Would you like to save 200 calories or more by taking a smaller portion?”
In one phase of the study, customers were offered a small discount (25ȼ) if they took the downsize option. In another, menu calorie labels were prominently displayed in front of customers as they made their selections, and in another calorie labels were removed.
From 14 to 33 percent of customers chose to downsize their portions. The 25ȼ discount actually had little impact on whether the customers chose to downsize or not, and the calorie postings didn’t either. In fact, significantly more patrons chose to downsize when there were no calories posted—21 percent vs. 14 percent.
Schwartz said she hopes the study helps restaurants understand that offering customers portion control choices won’t alienate them.
“I think the restaurant industry may find this counterintuitive, but it’s an interesting and easy strategy to implement that could help their customers make healthier choices,” Schwartz said.
(Photo credit: Tulane University)
For more insights and innovations check out CultureWaves®, the place to go for the latest observations in the World Thought Bank – events, ideas, trends and more. Add your own thoughts about anything in life – entertainment, design, technology, well-being and, yes, food trends. And, take a look at a few of our other Hot & Cool Food Trends.