by Marion Nestle
Apr 14 2009

Choosing foods: salads, French fries, and supplements

In early April, the New York Times briefly reported the results of an eating behavior experiment.  Investigators asked college students to choose foods from menus that differed in only one feature; one menu offered a salad and the other did not.   The point?  To find out whether the presence of a salad on the menu influenced what else the students ate.   It did.   The students choose French fries more often from the menu with the salad.  The authors’ interpretation: the “health aura” of salads gives people permission to indulge.  Their paper will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Health aura explains a lot about current food marketing trends.  You may have noticed that vitamins, antioxidants, and omega-3’s are added to everything these days.  Coupled with the downturn in the economy, health aura does wonders for sales of dietary supplements.  Despite underwhelming evidence for their effectiveness, supplements fly off the shelves.  They cost a lot less than health care (and, perhaps, do less harm).

  • Sheila

    Perhaps “health aura” was involved in this amusing conversation I witnessed this past weekend at the grocery store. Two women were each pushing carts through the fresh fruit area, and one said to the other while gesturing towards the fresh blueberries, “You should get some of those. They are good for your heart” The other woman said yes, she might get some, as she had been wanting to get something to help her heart stay healthy. I chuckled as I peered at the cart contents of this second woman, who in her efforts to help her heart, had also included in her cart a large sausage pizza, a package of bacon, a 2 pound package of hot dogs, 3 large bags of chips, a large platter of honeybuns, and a box of famous brand frozen sausage, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwiches. I kid you not.

  • This reminds me of this study that was done back in 2006 that “In a series of experiments, we demonstrate that remedy messages undermine risk perceptions and increase risky behavioral intentions as consumer problem status rises. Ironically, remedies undermine risk avoidance among those most at risk—a boomerang effect with negative consequences for consumer welfare.”
    It kind of explains the fries over salad doesnt it? 😉

  • I have a rule: don’t eat food that makes health claims. For instance, I used to eat Post Raisin Bran. On the box, in big green letters, even bigger than the words “Raisin Bran”, were the words “Digestive Health”. So I looked in the ingredients. Yeah, sure, wheat bran is high in fiber…but what about HFCS, also in the ingredients? I doubt that is going to do wonders for any kind of health.

  • Jon

    I’ve noticed that too. It’s really funny, because fiber doesn’t actually prevent colorectal cancer in and of itself; my hypothesis is that fiber relative to total carbohydrate does because insulin is the primary growth factor in chordates. And there are tastier ways to get fiber than prepackaged cereals. (An apple, for instance.)

  • Matilde

    As someone who has been on a restricted calorie diet for many years in order to maintain a healthy weight, I can still be amazed at how most people think about food and what they eat. I’ve certainly noticed the ‘healthly halo’ effect – where the presence of even one ‘healthy’ item atones for the rest of the sins on the plate.

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  • Matilde

    I’ve always wondered if an effect like this might be at work at Subway sandwich shops. Most people appear to order the most caloric items on the menu. You have to insist repeatedly to get no cheese and no mayo on your sandwich (it’s clearly not commonly ordered that way, even though all their nutritional info on their heavily advertised healthy options assumes the sandwich contains neither).

    If hardly anyone orders these sandwiches this way, and yet Subway continues to heavily promote them, Subway must believe that their very presence on the menu brings people in the door, even though customers seldom order them. (Indeed the study above suggests that their presence on the menu make customers more likely to indulge than they would otherwise).

  • Spider

    Yes, whenever I order a sandwich at any shop of Subway, the clerks invariably ask me “Cheese?” or “What kind of cheese?” even when I’ve clearly physically moved my body away from the cheese/meat section and I am looking at the lettuce/tomato section. Darn it, if I wanted cheese, I would say I want cheese!

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  • Alice

    Re fiber; interesting hypothesis, I like it. but regarding apples – they have only a very minimal amount, and it is soluble fiber, not insoluble. Insoluble is the one that helps your intestines, and cereals are a great source. Soluble e.g. from oatmeal, or fruit (small amounts) helps your cholesterol, but not your colon.

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