Size matters — for menus: Larger fonts encourage customers to make healthier food choices

the font size on the menu

PULLMAN, Wash.— It’s no secret that smart eating choices can yield many health benefits, but when it comes to visiting restaurants, many people can’t help but indulge in high-calorie foods. Researchers from Washington State University, however, showed that restaurants can persuade customers to choose healthier options simply by adjusting the font size of the numbers attached to the nutritional information on menus.

Lead researcher Ruiying Cai, assistant professor at WSU’s School of Hospitality Management, explained that all US restaurants with more than 20 locations are already required to show the calorie content of their food on the menu. By adopting a strategy of representing these values ​​inappropriately (using physically larger numbers on the page when associated with low-calorie options), Prof. Cai believes restaurant businesses can successfully “push” customers towards healthier diet choices.

“When a restaurant uses a larger font size for the calorie content of healthy food, even though the number itself has a smaller value, it will increase consumer preference to order healthier food,” said Prof. Cai in the university release.

During this study, participants had to choose between a less healthy meal such as a bacon burger and a healthier option such as a grilled chicken sandwich. Then, the researcher randomly assigned them to two groups. For the first cohort, the number values ​​and font sizes increased and decreased simultaneously. For the second group, the relationship between number magnitude and size is not congruent; in other words, the font size becomes smaller as the number value increases and vice versa.

A study led by WSU business researcher Ruiying Cai found that participants who saw lower calorie counts printed in large letters were more likely to choose healthier food choices. (Credit: Washington State University)

The study authors also asked a number of questions aimed at measuring how health-conscious the participants were, while giving different time limits to different participants in an attempt to gauge the effect of the time limits on their decisions. Prof Cai noted the results showed participants in the second group, who saw the lower calorie count printed in large letters, were more likely to choose the healthier option. Those who indicated they were less health conscious were also affected the most, especially when given a strict time frame for making choices.

Eaters who have high levels of health awareness are less likely to be affected, says Prof. Cai, added that this is probably because they already like healthy food.

“Even if you use some clever tricks, it doesn’t work out as well for those who are not very knowledgeable about health,” comments Prof. Cai.

The research exploits a phenomenon called the “numerical Stroop effect”, which uses oddities to emphasize lower numbers and slightly slow down the decision-making process, thereby helping to coax customers towards healthier menu choices.

In its traditional form, the Stroop effect is described as a delay in reaction time associated with a stimulus. For example, if the word “purple” is written in a green font, it usually takes people longer to name the color they see than if the word and color match. Doctors have used this principle to measure attention capacity and processing speed among patients. Likewise, the numerical Stroop effect can be seen when the physical size of a number does not match its actual size, such as when the number 50 uses a larger font than the number 80.

Restaurants should invest in encouraging customers to make healthier choices, says Prof. Cai. However, labeling healthy foods alone may not be enough.

“Healthy food can be profitable for restaurants, but whenever a ‘healthy’ label is tacked on, people may perceive it as unpalatable,” Cai concludes. “We try to give restaurants subtle cues, rather than saying it out loud.”

This study was published in International Journal of Hospitality Management.

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