Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Paradox

Restaurant (A) presents food items that are advertised as being healthy choices, and has even caused some people to lose serious weight. Restaurant (B) was the topic of an entire movie (Supersize Me) which focused on unhealthy eating. Could someone possibly think that eating huge portions at restaurant (A), and picking up choices that were not advertised in their health menu, would still be healthier than eating anything at Restaurant B? Aha, it is the branding thing, again. You remember, we touched on that once before. And here is a very elegant study, actually four studies in one report, that is an eye opener. The article title is “The Biasing Health Halos of Fast-Food Restaurant Health Claims: Lower Calorie Estimates and Higher Side-Dish Consumption Intentions”, that appeared in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Study 1: “Calorie Estimations by Subway and McDonald’s Diners” concluded that branding Subway as the healthier choice leads people to believe that Subway meals contain 21.3% fewer calories than same-calorie McDonald’s meals.

Study 2: found that even consumers who are "familiar" with both restaurants estimate that Subway sandwiches contain much less calories than McDonald’s sandwiches containing the “same” number of calories.

Study 3 is the real kicker. Participants were given Subway sandwiches that contained 50% “more” calories than the “unhealthy” Big Mac. In addition to a serious underestimate of the calories in the Subway sandwich, participants who ate the Subway sandwiches ended up ordering higher-calorie drinks and cookies. It is as if those who thought that they ate healthier main-dishes, tended to reward themselves by eating higher calorie side-dishes or drinking more calorie-rich drinks. As you can imagine, they consumed many more calories because of the double mistake (underestimating the main meal calories, and taking richer side orders)

Study 4 actually proved the influence of marketing and branding. When consumers were presented with arguments contradicting the health claims, the “halo effects” mentioned above tended to disappear.

What a fascinating research, and no doubt one that will become a classic. The series of studies were designed to help finding an answer to a question, as stated by the authors: Why is America a land of low-calorie food claims, yet high-calorie food intake?


Chandon P, Wansink P. The Biasing Health Halos of Fast-Food Restaurant Health Claims: Lower Calorie Estimates and Higher Side-Dish Consumption Intentions. Journal of Consumer Research. Vol. 34 · October 2007

Pierre Chandon, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of marketing at INSEAD, France. Brian Wansink, Ph.D. is the Chair of Marketing and of Nutritional Science in the Applied Economics and Management Department, Cornell University, NY. The data in these studies were collected at the expense of the authors, and the studies were not sponsored by any outside source.