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Pundit’s Mailbag — How To Help People Make The Right Choices At Restaurants…. Is There An App For That?

How do we help people make good choices?

This is the question our piece — Do Consumers Eat More When Given Calorie Recommendations At Restaurants? ‘McDonald’s Study’ Demonstrates Nanny-Statism May Have Unintended Consequences — posed in the mind of one thoughtful professor:

While I understand the political slant of the authors, the goal should be to find strategies to help people make good food choices, not to make political points.

As with making calorie decisions at one meal, one scientific article does not validate or invalidate anything, unless it is a very innovative paper.

In my case, I respond to the cost/item, and unless there is a big quality difference, I do not want to be faced with spending $8 for either 350 calories or 1000 calories. I recognize the cost of fresh vegetables are more than fat intellectually, but emotionally it is hard to spend more on less.

It also depends on where the meal is placed in my total food intake. Is it a snack, a big meal, or do I know I will not eat again for 12 hours?

I would value an app that one could use to determine the meal content relative to my particular need, so I do not need the calories or the grams of protein on a board, but somewhere accessible.

I would rather know if the total and relative fat, protein, and carbs are within the bounds of good nutrition, so there is a balance and quantity issue.

Charles Shapiro
Professor of Agronomy and Horticulture
Soil Scientist — Crop Nutrition

Department of Agronomy & Horticulture
University of Nebraska
Concord, Nebraska

Professor Shapiro’s note strikes at the heart of the difficulty in getting people to reduce calorie content when dining at restaurants, especially fast food restaurants. Marketing efforts in these venues typically focus on giving more for less. The whole “value meal” concept is a way of, in effect, saying, “if you buy a burger and soda, we will throw the fries in for free.” This strikes most people as a good deal. You have to have reached a higher level of consciousness to say “no, that is a bad deal for me because I don’t want those extra calories.”

At retail, one can offer a BOGO or similar promotion and the food is not designed for immediate consumption, so the “buy more for less” philosophy doesn’t necessarily impact calorie consumption – one reason retail promotions are difficult, as often one is just stealing sales from next week.

In restaurants, though, although sometimes people will take extra food home, in many cases the reason they are at a restaurant, especially a fast food place, is that they are on-the-go and thus storing food for future use is inconvenient. Psychologically throwing food out is “waste,” which their mothers taught them is “bad,” and so promotions that give more food for less encourage higher calorie consumption.

Restaurants prefer this type of promotion because it allows the business to increase revenue rather than decrease revenue when promoting. In other words, McDonald’s could offer 10% off everything to drive sales. This may result in getting less money per customer than it might have gotten otherwise, so sales would have to increase sufficiently to offset the 10% price reduction.

This is difficult because most people only want one Big Mac right then and there, so even deep price discounts don’t necessarily make people buy more although they may attract more customers. Alternatively, McDonald’s could do what it has done and it could create a value meal that costs a little more than the consumer would have spent on a burger and Coke, but throws in fries — this actually increases the average ring. So even if the promotion attracts no new customers, it will boost sales and, as the cost of food is typically low for things such as soda or fries, the margin hit is slight.

We are not big on government regulation. It often has unintended consequences that negate whatever good the rule was intended to do and, often, the process gets co-opted to favor a particular interest, not the general interest. However if we were told to impose a regulation on restaurants with the goal of reducing caloric intake, we wouldn’t worry too much about lots of education. What we would do is impose a rule that precludes restaurants from offering promotions that are contingent on buying more food; in other words McDonald’s could offer discounts, say 20% off,  but not value meals.

Professor Shapiro also points out that technology can help provide tools that would make it easy for consumers to do the right thing. Doubtless as apps get better, this will help. If one can read a menu with one’s Google Glasses, and simultaneously the glasses tell you what will conform to one’s Weight Watchers program, it may make things easier. We suspect, however, that it will mostly make things easier for people such as Professor Shapiro who are highly intelligent, well educated, disciplined and motivated.

Aristotle expected that if one studied the matter and determined that bitter greens were good for one’s health, then one was going to eat the bitter greens. Personal preferences, flavors and tastes would have been irrelevant. Using our human faculties — our intelligence — we had determined consumption of bitter greens is good for us, so we would to do it. Alas, we may be a tad short on Aristotelians these days.

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