Published on 4 December 2014
Images of fast food on menu boards seem to carry more weight with consumers than written information about their nutritional content, according to research by a USC Psychology student.
Marc Gehrmann, 38, of Currimundi, is now finalising his Bachelor of Social Sciences (Psychology) Honours project, which investigated alternative ways of presenting the energy content of menu items at the point-of-purchase in fast food restaurants.
“Energy content is currently presented numerically in kilojoules but I wanted to look at more intuitive, easy-to-understand labelling,” said Mr Gehrmann, who works in the food industry.
“Previous research suggests that displaying the kilojoule content on menu boards does not help people choose healthier options. My aim was to see if alternative labelling could prompt people to hypothetically order food with fewer kilojoules.”
However, Mr Gehrmann’s survey found that 69 percent of participants either did not notice any nutritional labelling or did not use it.
“This may be due to our inclusion of food images, which have been shown to influence food choices,” he said.
“No previous study of this type has included images. It shows that images may override any good intentions we have about eating healthily.
“Among those participants who did report using the nutritional information to inform their meal choice, the labels that showed physical activity equivalents were most commonly used (41 percent).”
This method converted the energy into equivalent physical activity. For example, a large burger would take an average adult 99 minutes of brisk walking to burn off.
Participants were given four menu board choices: one with no labelling; one listing kilojoules; one indicating physical activity; and one using a “traffic light” system where foods were categorised green (low energy), amber (medium) or red (high).
Mr Gehrmann, whose research was supervised by Psychology Lecturer Dr Kate Mulgrew, hopes to continue with a PhD at USC.
He said further research could examine the influence of food images when developing more effective labelling to improve public health and reduce obesity.
— Julie Schomberg