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Pundit’s Mailbag — 'McDonald’s Study' Bespeaks Need To Promote Healthy Options Long Before Smelling The Fries. But Will That Be Enough?

Our piece Pundit’s Mailbag — Do Consumers Eat More When Given Calorie Recommendations At Restaurants? ‘McDonald’s Study’ Demonstrates Nanny-Statism May Have Unintended Consequences, brought lots of comments, including one from a man with access to a lot of data on consumer behavior:

Very interesting write-up…

I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that when it comes to foods, the framework of the consumer purchase decision is made long before the consumer enters the store. In other words, by the time the researchers provided calorie data to consumers in a McDonalds, they were talking to a self-selected group where calorie content is a low priority pre-existing condition.

The consumers walking into that McDonalds have already made their general food purchase choice, and calorie accounting — at least for those consumers — is not in the equation. As you point out, this seems to be observable in the Subway study as calorie-aware consumers started their food quest with the more important task of first selecting where to dine for lunch.

I think what this points out is that the real opportunity/challenge is not about point-of-sale calorie lists but influencing and altering consumer purchase intent before they get to the store or restaurant. Change how consumers think about meal-selection choices and you change where/how they shop and ultimately their purchase behavior. But as you discuss, by the time one smells the fries, the food choice battle is already lost.

— Steve Lutz
Executive Vice President
Nielsen Perishables Group
Chicago, IL

Steve is astute and he identifies that this kind of study is likely to have very different outcomes depending on where one conducts such a study. Where one goes to eat is a self-selecting process, and the clientele at Darden’s Seasons 52 concept is very different from the clientele at Carl’s Jr.

If one really wants to study the impact of giving people calorie recommendations combined with providing calorie counts, one has to start with a representative sample of people. Part of being representative would be that they eat in a manner representative of the population — so if 25% of the population eats at restaurant X every 48 hours, the sample should mirror that. Only then would we be able to say what the impact of providing caloric recommendations would be on the American populace.

This being said, it is not clear that such a representative study would really help that much if the goal is to change eating habits. After all, the researchers studied McDonald’s, not an obscure eatery. If the people who go to McDonald’s self-select for not being interested in such education, well that is just another way of saying that big chunks of the population are not going to be amenable to these types of pitches.

Steve also makes a more subtle point in that he holds open the possibility that these people can be influenced at other times and in other ways. In other words, Steve is arguing that the key decision is to go to McDonald’s vs. Subway, not to choose the Quarter Pounder vs. the Big Mac.

Technically, this is not true. One can eat in quite a healthy manner at McDonald’s — one can drink bottled water and eat salads without dressing and lose lots of weight eating at McDonald’s. Culturally, however, Steve is probably on to something. There are always special exceptions, maybe people traveling without time or only able to select from venues in an airport or roadside service area, or a Mom catering to her teenagers, etc. It is also true that anyone can run into a McDonald’s for a bottle of water or cup of coffee. But, most of the time, people who are focused on health and nutrition are not going to choose to eat at McDonald’s.

So Steve’s assessment implies that whatever marketing, education or promotion the trade or the government is doing should be focused long before the person decides to enter the door at McDonald’s. 

There is little question that Steve is right about this, but it is less clear that there actually is an effective path. After all, all those people at McDonald’s in this study have been barraged with health messaging for decades — in school, in the media, in promotions such as Fruits & Veggies More Matters In the store and, more recently, with the First Ladies’ Let’s Move program.

It may well be that just as “spot reducing” doesn’t work to get rid of love handles, “spot education” doesn’t work to change consumer behavior on areas of nutrition. There are always individual exceptions, and there are clearly medical issues that impact certain people in how they deal with food and exercise but, in general, there is a strong correlation between things such as income and educational level and obesity — the more affluent, the better educated, the less likely one is to be obese.

This suggests that more affluent, better educated people are either better able to absorb health and fitness recommendations or better able to discipline themselves to follow the recommendations. Looked at through this prism, efforts to improve diet and exercise levels would be better directed toward helping kids graduate high school.

If a person is a high school dropout, had children out of wedlock, does drugs and drinks to excess, can’t hold a job because the person can’t show up regularly, it seems unreasonable to think that this person will be punctilious about his or her intake of leafy greens.

Perhaps this study, along with Steve Lutz’s illuminating letter, can lead us all to think about what might actually work in nutrition education. We may find that we have to face some disconcerting truths. That the task for the industry and all who wish to be effective about changing eating habits is not so much nutritional-education as it is focused on helping people to absorb and act on information that could benefit them in all walks of life. The zeitgeist is filled with information, lessons for success: Save your money, finish school, don’t have unprotected sex, don’t do drugs, don’t drink to excess, work out every day and, yes, eat your vegetables. It may be a fool’s errand to think we can pluck out nutrition and through education see dramatic changes in the produce eating portion of these “suggestions for success” — it may well be that if we are to be effective, we have to focus on how people receive and act on information. The job may simply be much larger and more demanding than we have realized.

Many thanks to Steve Lutz and Nielsen Perishables Group for helping us think through this interesting matter.

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