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Why we Struggle with Food Choices

4/9/2012 --

Journal highlights work of two Ross professors that explores how and why consumers make food decisions.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — U.S. consumers have more nutrition information and choices than ever, but remain befuddled on what to buy and what to eat as obesity rates continue to soar.

It's a rich area for research, and two Ross marketing professors are at the forefront. Papers from Aradhna Krishna and Brent McFerran are two of the five pieces highlighted by the Journal of Consumer Research in a recent special report on food decision-making.

"The articles selected for this special collection represent the spectrum of internal and external motivational drivers, and the social, psychological, and stimulus-based contextual factors that influence our food decision-making," wrote section curator Lauren Block. "Consumer research on individual food decision-making is helping us understand the current paradox of consumption: why today’s consumers, despite higher levels of food and nutrition literacy than ever before, and a national obsession with calories, fat, and BMI, are struggling with overconsumption."

Krishna's work focuses on the relationship between labeling, or mislabeling, and food consumption. Her paper, "Guiltless Gluttony: The Asymmetric Effect of Size Labels on Size Perceptions and Consumption," shows that consumers tend to overeat large sizes of food labeled as small and feel that they have not eaten too much — even if they're aware of the actual portion size and nutrition content.

"Mislabeling larger items as being smaller allows consumers to guiltlessly consume more, what we refer to as 'guiltless gluttony,' and can impact both actual and perceived consumption," says Krishna, the Dwight F. Benton Professor of Marketing at Ross. "This can result in unintended and uninformed overconsumption, which can clearly have dire consequences for health reasons."

Krishna and colleague Nilufer Aydinoglu, PhD '07, of Koc University in Istanbul found that size labels (small, medium, large, extra large, etc.) used by food companies can have a major impact on consumers' size judgments , as well as purchase and consumption behaviors. They found consumers perceive large sizes of food to be small or medium in size when they're labeled as such and will, consequently, eat more. Their results also show that consumers are less likely to believe that a small-sized item labeled as medium or large, is, in fact, labeled correctly.

In other words, underestimations are more likely and increase in magnitude as the size of the meal increases, the researchers say. Underestimations of large meals, therefore, are bigger than the overestimations of small meals.

"Such behavior is clearly ridden with significant health ramifications, and size labels could be contributing to the rampant obesity problems in the United States," says Krishna. "Stricter size-labeling laws and more vigilant monitoring of marketers' use of size labels may be needed, especially considering the limited cognitive resources available to consumers for routine food choice and consumption behavior during their everyday endeavors."

Krishna also is director of the Sensory Marketing Lab, which studies how sensory aspects of products — touch, taste, smell, sound, and visual aspects — affect consumer emotions, memories, perceptions, preferences, choices, and consumption.

McFerran's research in the Journal of Consumer Research feature centers on how someone's body type can influence the food consumption of people around them.

The paper "I'll Have What She's Having: Effects of Social Influence and Body Type on the Food Choices of Others" shows that people adjust how much they eat based on the appearance of their fellow diners.

The research builds on prior studies that demonstrated how social settings can influence eating behavior. For example, those inclined to eat large portions eat less in the presence of others. But as the group size increases, no one wants to stand out, so portion sizes move toward a group average.

But perceptions of obese and thin people differ, and McFerran and his fellow researchers set out to discover how that might influence food choices. Would people adjust their portions based on whether their fellow diners were thin or obese?

A series of experiments showed they do. People are more likely to eat greater portions when others with them do likewise, but the effect is greater when the person is thin. If a heavy colleague takes a large portion, then fellow diners are inclined to take a smaller portion.

"Our findings strongly suggest, counter to other research done in the social-influence literature on food consumption, that in many cases the most dangerous people to eat with are not those who are overweight but rather those who are thin but are heavy eaters," the authors say. "If a heavyset colleague eats a lot, he or she is a better lunch partner than a thin colleague who orders the same dish. By contrast, a thin colleague who eats lightly is more likely to cause others around them to eat less."

"Recognizing situations where people might be vulnerable to overeating is important, since small food intake decisions have a larger impact on body weight than people realize," McFerran says.

The paper was co-authored by Darren W. Dahl of the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, Gavan J. Fitzsimons of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, and Andrea C. Morales of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.

— Terry Kosdrosky and Bernie DeGroat

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,