Consumers may avoid menu items labeled as 'low calorie'

April 23, 2014

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that consumers may avoid restaurant foods labeled “low-calorie” because they have the perception of being unsatisfying.

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.

“When a menu is calorie posted but not calorie organized, it is less likely that the caloriccontent of the dishes will be used as an initial filter for eliminating large portions of the menu,” the authors concluded. “For the consumer, this means you are more likely to consider ordering a low-calorie dish and also more likely to eat it too.”