Consumers May Avoid Menu Items Labeled as 'Low Calorie'

Consumers may avoid restaurant foods labeled “low-calorie" in fear of the foods being unsatisfying, according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

ATLANTA—Consumers may avoid restaurant foods labeled “low-calorie" in fear of the foods being unsatisfying, according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

In online experiments, participants were asked to order food from menus similar to those in popular chain restaurants. Some of the volunteers were shown additional menus that organized selections in food-type categories and provided no calorie information. Another group received the same menus, but with calorie information provided for each selection, while a third group received calorie-labeled menus with low-calorie choices in one section under a low-calorie heading.

The researchers found that the participants with the traditional menus without any calorie information and those with menus that grouped low-calorie foods together ordered meals with similar amounts of calories. Those with menus that provided calorie information for each item but did not group low-calorie items together ordered meals with fewer calories.

Ordering at restaurants often requires a “narrowing down" decision-making process, and when all low-calorie options are grouped together, it is easier for people to dismiss that category early in the decision process.

This undermines what we already know—consumers put taste above all when it comes to choosing which foods to eat. And in this case, consumers perceive that the low-calorie options won't be as palatable compared to the  full-fledged options.

Even health-conscious consumers are hesitant to sacrifice taste for healthier options. A recent issue of Food Product Design's Boardroom Journal, "Navigating Consumer Activism," dives into consumers attitudes toward ingredients not considered healthy, such as high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners, and their actual buying behaviors. Outlined in the issue is Sweetener360, a study commissioned by the Corn Refiner's Association (CRA) and completed in part by Nielsen and Mintel Consulting. According to the study, consumers don't always practice what they preach—even consumers who claimed to avoid specific sweetening ingredients were unlikely to sacrifice taste for healthfulness.

So what does this mean for product development? It's no surprise consumers are increasingly looking for foods that do more than just fill the tank; trends like added protein and added fiber are making products consumers already know and like—like snack bars and beverages—more appealing in terms of nutrition. Food Product Design provides tools in its Content Library, like "Logical Fortification" to help food product designers think outside the box to improve nutrition while keeping taste (and demand) high for healthier products.

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