Reading Between the Menu Lines: Are Restaurants’ Descriptions of “Healthy” Foods Unappealing?

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Abstract

Objective: As obesity rates continue to climb in America, much of the blame has fallen on the high-calorie meals at popular chain restaurants. Many restaurants have responded by offering “healthy” menu options. Yet menus’ descriptions of healthy options may be less attractive than their descriptions of less healthy, standard options. This study examined the hypothesis that the words describing items in healthy menu sections are less appealing than the words describing items in standard menu sections. Method: Menus from the top-selling American casual-dining chain restaurants with dedicated healthy submenus (N = 26) were examined, and the library of words from health-labeled items (N = 5,873) was compared to that from standard menu items (N = 38,343) across 22 qualitative themes (e.g., taste, texture). Results: Log-likelihood ratios revealed that restaurants described healthy items with significantly less appealing themes and significantly more health-related themes. Specifically, healthy items were described as less exciting, fun, traditional, American regional, textured, provocative, spicy hot, artisanal, tasty, and indulgent than standard menu items, but were described with significantly more foreign, fresh, simple, macronutrient, deprivation, thinness, and nutritious words. Conclusion: Describing the most nutritious menu options in less appealing terms may perpetuate beliefs that healthy foods are not flavorful or indulgent, and may undermine customers’ choice of healthier dining options. From a public health perspective, incorporating more appealing descriptive language to boost the appeal of nutritious foods may be one avenue to improve dietary health.

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