Calorie Catch in Healthy Fast Food
People Tend to Underestimate Calories in 'Healthy' Fast Food, Study Shows
Aug. 31, 2007 -- Going for healthy fast-food fare? You might want to give
yourself a calorie reality check.
A new study shows that people tend to underestimate the calories in
fast-food items that they consider relatively healthy.
Those diners, perhaps thinking they've got a little leeway in their calorie
budget, often treat themselves to cookies, sodas, or other extras that push
their calories even higher.
That's according to Pierre Chandon, PhD, and Brian Wansink, PhD.
Chandon is an associate professor of marketing at the European Institute for
Business Administration (INSEAD), a business school in Fontainebleau, France.
Wansink is the John S. Dyson Chair of marketing and of nutritional science in
Cornell University's applied economics and management department.
Their report on fast-food health claims appears in October's edition of the
Journal of Consumer Research.
Healthy Fast Food
Chandon and Wansink conducted several fast-food experiments.
First, they compared the calorie expectations of people eating at Subway and
McDonald's. The researchers argue that Subway touts the healthiness of its food
while McDonald's doesn't.
For instance, Chandon and Wansink asked people eating a sandwich, soft
drink, and a side order from Subway or from McDonald's how many calories they
thought those meals contained.
The meals actually had the same number of calories. In this experiment, the
diners didn't know how many calories they were getting in their meals, though
McDonald's and Subway post their nutritional information on their web
The Subway diners thought their meal had 151 calories less than it actually
had -- a 21% underestimation.
Chandon and Wansink also offered 46 undergraduates a coupon for a Subway
12-inch Italian BMT sandwich or a McDonald's Big Mac.
When asked what they wanted with their sandwich, the Subway diners were more
likely to pick high-calorie side orders. Perhaps they thought their sandwich
was a caloric bargain (even though it actually had 900 calories, compared with
the 600-calorie Big Mac), the researchers suggest.
The researchers stress that they're not trying to slam Subway or promote
McDonald's. They didn't do an in-depth nutritional analysis of every item on
those restaurants' menus.
In their final experiment, Chandon and Wansink made up two imaginary
restaurants -- "Good Karma Healthy Foods" and "Jim's Hearty
The researchers presented 214 university students with menus from both
restaurants. The "Good Karma Healthy Foods" menu included carrot soup
and organic hummus, while "Jim's Hearty Sandwiches" had fattier fare,
such as sausage sandwiches.
After reading those pretend menus, the students saw identical sandwiches and
drinks labeled with one or the other imaginary restaurant's name.
The students estimated that the sandwich from the "healthier"
restaurant had fewer calories -- but when the researchers challenged that
assumption, they weren't quite so sure about that.
The researchers aren't against splurging on calories every now and then.
"There is nothing wrong with occasionally enjoying a high-calorie meal
as long as people recognize that they have had a lot of calories and that they
need to adjust their future calorie intake or expenditure accordingly,"
But Chandon's and Wansink's point is not to rely too much on the assumption
that "healthy" menu items are lower in calories.