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Smarter food combinations can lead to healthier eating

Can the way that complementary foods are presented—think the omnipresent combo meal—affect our propensity to eat more healthfully?

It certainly can, according to a new study by Marcus Cunha, Jr., from the University of Washington Foster School of Business and Juliano Laran from the University of Miami.

Cunha, an assistant professor of marketing at the Foster School, says that humans are hard-wired to develop and protect food associations. For instance, Americans have come to associate hamburgers and French fries as an inseparable combination. But if we consistently offered a variety of combinations built around the burger, and altered the order in which they were presented, this time-honored association could eventually be dissolved. Especially if we pay attention to the way the human mind decides what to eat.

Do you want fries with that?
Cunha’s study finds that people protect associations of the first combination of foods that they encounter. When they are presented with a second combination, they ignore the shared food item and focus on the “new” component.

So if the burger and fries comes first on the menu, consumers are likely to view the two foods as a conjoined pair. But if a second combination pairs a burger and a green salad, the consumer will ignore the presence of the burger and focus on the salad.

Here’s the power in this knowledge: Since salad is quickly recognized as a nutritious food, Cunha says, the burger and green salad would be seen as the “healthy” option (even with the presence of the comparatively unhealthy burger). This becomes a welcome, easily visible alternative for those looking to eat a more healthful diet. But the general public, more neutral to health issues, is more likely to continue choosing the first combination they encounter—in this case the calorie and cholesterol bomb that is the burger and fries.

Short-cutting vs. self-control
The study builds on the existing body of research on self-control. According to Cunha, healthy eating is a decision that requires self-control. Self-control requires mental energy. But we have limited stores of this energy. So by necessity, we take short cuts to make countless micro-decisions throughout the day. Deciding what to eat is often one of them.

“A lot of the time we will behave sub-optimally, which is to say we make not the best choice right now, because we don’t have the time or energy to assess all of the information available,” Cunha explains. “If for every small choice you looked at all the information thoroughly to discriminate between options, you’d be really tired at the end of the day. You might make the best choice, but you’d maybe not have the energy to make all the choices needed that day.”

Raising the (salad) bar
Cunha’s research offers some advice to a society facing an epidemic of obesity: Regulate the presentation of combo meals in restaurants and school cafeterias, following successful laws that compel restaurants and food manufacturers to publish nutritional content.

Something as simple as presenting the burger and salad combo first would begin to build a protective association of this paring. On the other hand, presenting the burger and fries second would cast a light on the relative unhealthiness of deep-fried carbs over leafy greens. The likely result, according to the study’s findings, would be a gradual erosion of the “meat and potatoes” cartel.

“We know that people are going to take short cuts. When considering what to eat at McDonald’s, you’re not likely to make a considered decision. That’s just not the way our brains work,” Cunha says. “By putting information in a way that even when people take short cuts they will make better choices, we will contribute to a healthier population.”

The paper, “Can We Help Consumers Make Healthier Food Choices? The Role of Product Associations,” is under review at the Journal of Consumer Research.