Why healthy eaters fall for fries
LAST Tuesday, Mr Connor Moran, a limit-the-red-meat, increase-the-greens, eat-salad-for-lunch kind of guy, went into a Dunkin' Donuts for his usual black coffee, no sugar, no cream.
He walked out with a sandwich of egg and bacon between two halves of a glazed doughnut.
Such is the puzzle of the food industry: Consumers, even otherwise-healthy ones, keep choosing caloric indulgences rather than healthy foods at fast-food restaurants.
Public-health officials in the United States have been pushing fast-food restaurants to offer more nutritious foods to help combat excess weight. And restaurants have obliged by adding healthy menu items. But it's the sugary, fatty items that are flying out the door.
The new menu items added by fast-food chains this year indicate as much: a brownie batter-filled doughnut (Dunkin' Donuts), a bacon habanero ranch Quarter Pounder (McDonald's), bacon-filled tater tots (Burger King), a six-slices-of-bacon-and-cheese burger (Carl's Jr), and a choco-covered pretzel and choco-chunk vanilla Blizzard (Dairy Queen).
While restaurants try lower-calorie options - an egg-white sandwich here, a turkey burger there - the unhealthy stuff is "what consumers order", said Mr Darren Tristano, executive vice-president at Technomic, a food-industry consulting firm.
Professor Gavan Fitzsimons, who studies consumer psychology at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, has researched the disconnect.
In studies, he has presented participants with a range of menu choices. It turned out that including a healthy option did change people's behaviour - by making them eat more unhealthily.
"When you put a healthy option up there on an otherwise-unhealthy menu, not only do we not pick it, but its presence on the menu leads us to swing over and pick something that's worse for us than we normally would," he said.
Health-conscious eaters are the most susceptible to picking unhealthy items when the menu also has healthy ones.
"It's often the ones raising their hands, saying they would pick the salad, those are the ones that are the most at risk when they walk in," he said.
It's a conflict the Nobel-winning economist Thomas Schelling described in his book Choice And Consequence. "People behave sometimes as if they had two selves, one who wants clean lungs and long life and the other who adores tobacco, or one who wants a lean body and another who wants dessert," he wrote.
"The two are in continual contest for control."
Even when consumers are explicitly told the calories a food contains, it doesn't change their behaviour much.
Dr Brian Elbel, an assistant professor of population health and health policy at New York University's School of Medicine, studied consumer behaviour before and after the city required chain restaurants to post calorie counts in 2008.
He found that 54 per cent of respondents in New York City said they noticed the calorie labelling. Of those, less than a quarter said they ate fewer calories as a result.
When he analysed consumers' receipts, he found that there was no difference in calories consumed, whether people said they responded to the calorie counts or not.
Consumers may be engaging in what behavioural economists call hyperbolic discounting, he said.
"It's just easier to imagine what this is going to feel like now, and harder to think through what it feels like later," he said.
"What we're learning from what's happening in the industry is, consumers don't see fast-food restaurants as places to eat healthy," said Mr Tristano. "It's indulgence that's important."
Researchers are thinking of new ways to signal nutritional value: how much exercise it would take to burn off a menu item, symbols like traffic lights, or educational campaigns on understanding calories. But they are not leaving it up to the restaurants.
"They're not social-service agencies - they're places that are trying to make money by selling food. That's their business," said Dr Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.
"Sugar, salt and fat sells."