The next time you’re perusing a menu, treat it with the same caution you would a pot of last month’s stew. That’s because higher priced and unhealthy items are strategically presented to look the most appetizing.
Two recent and separate analyses of restaurant menus came up with strikingly similar conclusions: Restaurants are trying to guide your eye to certain items, even when cheaper or healthier options are flagged. Menu names with descriptive items sell better and lead you to believe that they taste better, according to a new study of 217 menus and selections of over 300 diners by researchers at Cornell University and published this month in the International Journal of Hospitality Management.
The researchers cite a case where the names of restaurant menu items were changed to make them more exotic: The seafood filet, for example, became “succulent Italian seafood filet,” and red beans and rice became “Cajun red beans and rice.”
Sales of these renamed items with descriptions rose by 28 percent and were rated as tastier, even though the recipes before and after were identical. What’s more, diners were also willing to spend an average of 12 percent more for a menu item with a fancy name.
Any food item that attracts attention with bold, highlighted or a colored font, an item that’s set apart in its own special box on the menu, or anything listed as a “house favorite,” is more likely to be ordered than an item listed next to it, the study found. The reason consumers should be concerned? “In most cases, these are the least healthy items on the menu,” says the study’s co-author Brian Wansink and author of “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.”
Similar to the way supermarkets put the higher margin foods at eye level, menus place higher priced items where consumers will most likely see them. On a menu, this is often on the top-right or bottom-left. Menu items are also given exotic descriptions to make them seem worth their weight in fillet steak, says Gina Mohr, assistant professor of marketing at Colorado State University — Fort Collins. And although images of food on a menu may be too down market for some restaurants, those tantalizing photos often work.
Surprisingly, restaurants provide low calorie labels on their menus that can actually cause people to actually choose higher calorie (and also more expensive) options, according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research and carried out by researchers at Georgia State University in Atlanta and Columbia University in New York. Most menus are complex, offering numerous dishes with lots of ingredients, so diners have come to expect low-calorie food to either taste bad or not fill them up, it found.
“By calorie-organizing a menu, restaurants make it easier for people to use the general low-calorie label to dismiss all low-calorie options early in the decision process,” the study concluded. In fact, participants in the study who were given traditional menus without any calorie information and menus with the low-calorie food lumped together ordered food with similar amounts of calories, even though most public health officials maintain that posting calorie information will actually lead to lower calorie choices.
This might explain why calorie counting may not change eating habits. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration followed New York City’s 2009 calorie-count law and introduced new rules that require restaurant chains with 20 or more locations to list calories on the menu. Only 1 in 6 New Yorkers considered the calorie information before making their purchase, a 2011 study published in the British Medical Journal found. Consumers, Wansink says, may need a nudge with more than just a number.
However, dieters may be willing to make the sacrifice on taste — even if it’s a perceived one — and are more sensitive to visual cues about portion control, organic or vegetarian produce and diet concepts, says Mohr, the assistant marketing professor. “Restaurants may want to avoid using diet words to reduce consumers’ perceptions that the food tastes bad,” she says. “But at the same time they don’t want to turn off a segment of consumers most restaurants are targeting — that is, the health-conscious consumer.”
Quentin Fottrell is a personal finance reporter for MarketWatch based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo. This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com and is reprinted by permission from Marketwatch.com, ©2014 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.