The effect of food imagery

December 10, 2010

Is this wishful thinking, artful denial, or a trick of the eye and a trick of the mind?

Is this wishful thinking, artful denial, or a trick of the eye and a trick of the mind?

In a recent study of weight-conscious people by Northwestern University, subjects perceived that adding a healthy option (celery sticks) to an indulgent meal (cheeseburger) lessened the total calorie count.

To Alexander Chernev, the study’s author and associate professor at the university’s Kellogg School of Management, misguided beliefs such as this – especially by the weight-conscious – contribute to the nation’s swelling obesity epidemic. “People intuitively believe that eating healthy foods in addition to unhealthy ones can decrease a meal’s calorie count,” he said.

Some findings of the online study of 934 subjects:

  • Overall, they estimated a bowl of chili and cheese packed 699 calories, but with a salad, just 656.
  • Dieters looking at several different food pairings underestimated calorie counts by 10.8%, compared with 4.8% among people who were indifferent about their weight.
  • Demonstrating an effect of contrast, people first eyed an organic fruit salad and then estimated that a cheeseburger had 1,041 calories; or they viewed a cheesecake and pegged the same cheeseburger at just 780.

This study certainly suggests a path to correcting misperceptions and instilling smarter consumer eating behaviors. The Lempert Report also believes the research is instructive for retailers deciding on the merchandising imagery for their stores – not only to sell more goods, but to responsibly help guide shoppers to buy baskets of balanced choices that serve their households well.