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Can we encourage healthier choices by the way we display food options?

Does the way food is displayed influence the choices you make? Given worldwide concerns related to obesity, it is critical to understand factors that affect healthful consumption.

The results of our recent experiments show that displaying healthy food to the left of an unhealthy option can influence the selection and consumption volume of the healthier choice. Since managers typically have considerable flexibility in terms of how they display food items in retail outlets and restaurant menus, they can use this to design optimal menu formats to suit their sales objectives.

The results of our studies demonstrate that when a healthy and an unhealthy item are organized laterally, there is relatively greater preference for the healthy option when it is displayed to the left (vs. right) of the unhealthy option. Why does this happen? We found that consumers’ natural tendency is to mentally organize healthy items (e.g., grilled chicken) to the left of unhealthy items (e.g., fried chicken). Hence, a food display that is congruent with this natural mental representation facilitates information processing, which in turn enhances self-control, and ultimately leads to relatively higher likelihood of choosing healthy options.

In one of the experiments, half the participants received a menu where the healthy items (e.g., salads) were displayed to the left of the unhealthy items (e.g., burgers), while the other half of the participants received a menu with the opposite display pattern. The figure below illustrates the menu used. Participants were then asked to indicate their preference for one food item from the menu. The results showed that there was greater preference for the healthy items when they were displayed to the left (vs. right) of the unhealthy items on the menu.

Food menu by Marisabel Romero, Dipayan Biswas. Used with permission.

We also found that even the consumption amount of healthy and unhealthy items are influenced by left-right positions of healthy/unhealthy items. Before bringing in the participants to the lab, a healthy beverage (high-vitamin orange juice) was placed to the left (vs. right) of an unhealthy beverage (high-calorie orange soda) based on where the participants would be seated. The beverages had comparable color and texture. Participants were then instructed to drink as much of each beverage as they wanted. Consumption volume was measured by weighing the cups before and after consumption. The results of this experiment showed that participants consumed a higher volume of the healthy beverage when it was placed to the left (vs. right) of the unhealthy beverage.

Choosing between healthy and unhealthy options often entails trading off between short-term benefits in terms of taste/pleasure and long-term benefits in terms of health/well being. As a result, self-control plays an influential role in determining final choice outcome between healthy and unhealthy options. Our research shows that laterally displaying healthy options to the left (than to the right) of unhealthy options is congruent with their natural mental representation. This facilitates processing of the information and enhances self-control, which in turn increases likelihood of choosing the healthy option.

This could have interesting implications for retail product displays and menu designs. For instance, if a store wants to enhance sales of their healthy items, they can display them to the left (vs. right) of the unhealthy options from the consumer’s visual perspective. Similarly, while designing restaurant menus, a restaurant wanting to enhance sales of healthy food items might want to display the healthy items on the left side of the menu and the unhealthy items on the right side. With growing trends towards focusing on healthy eating, optimal menu designs can help restaurant managers and consumer advocates in influencing sales of healthy versus unhealthy items. In fact, given the limited research in the academic literature on the psychological aspects of menu designs, this is an important step in this direction by identifying how lateral display patterns of healthy/unhealthy items on a menu can potentially influence choice.

The findings also have implications for consumer welfare in terms of facilitating healthy choice behavior. Policy makers and consumers might want to promote having healthy items displayed to the left (vs. right) of unhealthy items in order to nudge healthier food choices and consumption.

Featured image credit: market fruits vegetables food by StockSnap. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Who would have guessed? […]

  2. Jack Hobbes

    “mental representation” is the deciding factor for almost all the choices we make. In other words, this mind game of left/right organization of the healthy/unhealthy diet plays one of the most influential role in shaping our physical well being. The following link has a unique cook book program for Health and Fitness, Weight Loss, kitchen tested Recepies with Nutritional Breakdowns. http://tinyurl.com/jsydby2

  3. e berris

    Does this also have the same results for left-handed people, and those who read text from right to left?

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