Customers deciding between an indulgent mac ‘n cheese bowl and a healthier grilled chicken salad may opt for the latter choice if the calorie counts are listed in a larger font size.
That’s according to research conducted by Dr. Ruiying Cai, a professor at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. In a paper published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, Cai calls out this behavior as “the numerical stroop effect.” It refers to the relationship between numerical values and their physical sizes.
When customers feel time-pressured to order, the larger calorie count typeface exerts an even stronger pull to choose the healthier item, the research found. And it has a more significant impact on consumers who are not especially health conscious.
The Food & Drug Administration mandates that restaurant chains with 20 locations or more post nutrition information on menus and menu boards. Others do it voluntarily, including foodservice operators at some colleges, corporate cafes and health care facilities.
On the restaurant side, there has been pushback against menu labeling for the cost and time it involves, as well as the negative design impact it has on menus and marketing. Some operators tend to display the calorie counts and other information as unobtrusively as possible—often in a small font or color that is hard to read. Others use infographics or color coding that have not been effective in moving customers toward healthier choices, Cai pointed out in her paper.
“Simple changes in font size might be the deciding factor in nudging people toward a healthier meal,” she noted.
Although the research is based on two experiments and is ongoing, increasing the size of the typeface for calorie counts is a relatively easy and inexpensive fix. Maybe some customers will think twice about ordering that Caramel Brûlée Frappucccino and opt instead for Nitro Cold Brew—a swap that saves 395 calories.
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