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Fast Food Chains Can Cut Calories, Maintain Profits

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—Fast food chains often are maligned as a major cause of obesity; however, they have a unique opportunity to help consumers reduce caloric intake while maintaining profits, according to a new study published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

Researchers at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and Duke University found consumers place a perceived value on combo meals, even if it costs the same as choosing items á la carte. The researchers also suggest consumers may be subscribing to the underlying belief that a combo meal is considered a representative or appropriate meal size for the “average" consumer; this belief coupled with human beings’ tendency to converge to the average could be amplifying this effect.

They also learned that combo meals encourage consumers to “super-size" their orders, adding as much as 100 extra calories to their meal. As healthcare leaders caution the public about problems associated with overweight and obesity issues in America, part of the message is that consumers need to reduce their food portion sizes.

The researchers recruited 215 adults over age 21 who indicated that they ate at a fast food restaurant at least once a month. Fifty-four percent were female with an average age of 41.8 years. They were selected from a demographically diverse sample of the U.S. population. When presented with bundled and á la carte options from fast food menus, the researchers saw significant increases in the proportion of people who bought both a drink and fries when a combo meal is offered. Consumers also tended to purchase smaller portion sizes when they bought á la carte. For example, a consumer may purchase a 12-ounce drink when buying a la carte, but a 21-ounce drink (approximately a 100 calorie difference) when the combo meal was purchased. The same effect occurred with fries.

When they looked at consumers who chose larger size drinks (either the 32-ouce or 44-ounce drink) or large fries from an á la carte only menu they found these consumers were also more likely to choose the featured bundle option. Although this resulted in a decrease in consumption, the net effect across the population was that overall soft drink and fry consumption increased.

The researchers also studied the impact of proposed policies on consumer and firm behavior. They found providing nutritional information and taxing certain menu items do not significantly curb consumers’ desire for fast food items.

They did offer up a proposal to will help consumers shrink their portions without shrinking restaurants’ profits.

This choice includes having restaurants introduce a smaller drink size into the combo meal. As part of an industrywide effort, profits would not be adversely impacted and average caloric consumption would go down by 7 percent, since this substitution greatly increases the purchase of the smaller drink size.

“Each fast food firm continues to one-up each other as greater and greater sizes are introduced into the market place," they wrote. “If the entire industry adopted size standards firms could compete more on price and quality, rather than quantity, ultimately benefitting the customer."

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