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Past Issue • Oct-Dec 2013

Supersizing Taste: Intuitions about Food and Consumer Choice

Many consumers believe that “unhealthy = tasty,” and its reverse that “healthy = not tasty.” In his study on the pervasiveness of these beliefs and their subconscious influence on consumption, Professor Raj Raghunathan explores the beliefs’ origins, and urges policy makers, businesses leaders, and individual consumers to curb its dangerous spread.*

In 1991, McDonald’s introduced a burger called McLean. McLean was lower in fat than the regular burger. Further, blind taste tests revealed that McLean was better tasting than the regular burger. Food scientists achieved this remarkable feat – of making McLean burger healthier and tastier – by infusing the burger with artificial fat flavours. Yet, McLean failed miserably in the marketplace: It was pulled off the McDonald’s menu within a year of its launch.

Why did McLean fail?

One interesting possibility lies in the name that McDonald’s chose for the burger. The name “McLean” connotes not just lower fat and caloric content, but also lack of taste and flavour, especially for those who believe that healthy food cannot also be tasty. Is it possible that those who tried McLean thought that it tasted bad just because they expected it to taste bad – even though blind taste tests had found that it tasted better?

The McLean story inspired me and my colleagues, Rebecca Naylor and Wayne Hoyer, to explore the impact of the unhealthy = tasty intuition on people’s judgments and choices of food (see Raghunathan et al 2006). The unhealthy = tasty intuition refers to the idea that the healthiness of food is inversely related to its tastiness. Most Americans (over 60%) subscribe to this belief, as our studies show.

One of our experiments focused on whether those who subscribe to the unhealthy = tasty intuition would find the same food item less tasty if it were portrayed as being more healthy. We took advantage of a housewarming party in Austin, Texas, where I live with my family, to conduct the study.

Guests at the housewarming party were served three Indian dishes (idli, mango lassi and samosa). Since most attendees were unfamiliar with these food items – none had ever tried idli or lassi – we supplied them with an information sheet that provided some basic details about the three items. The purported reason for the information sheet was to educate the guests about the nutritional value of these dishes, but the real reason was to manipulate the perceived level of healthiness of lassi, a smoothie made with a base of milk or yogurt.

The study revealed two interesting insights. First, those who believed lassi to be less healthy found it tastier and enjoyed the drink more than those who believed lassi to be healthy.

To roughly half the guests at the party, the lassi was portrayed as unhealthy (“made out of real mango pulp and milk; generally considered very unhealthy”), while to the rest, it was portrayed as healthy (“made out of real mango pulp and milk; generally considered very healthy”). The information sheet portrayed the other two items – idlis and samosas – as healthy and unhealthy, respectively, across all participants. Thus, only lassi was portrayed as healthy to one set of participants and unhealthy to the other set. After tasting the three items, participants were asked to rate them on their tastiness and their “enjoyability.”

Two days after the party, we sent an email to all the participants to thank them for their attendance of the house warming party, and under the pretext of exploring their views about the relationship between the healthiness and tastiness of food, asked them to respond to the following question: “On a scale of one to nine, how much would you agree with the following statement: Food that is unhealthy generally tastes better?”

The study revealed two interesting insights. First, those who believed lassi to be less healthy found it tastier and enjoyed the drink more than those who believed lassi to be healthy. It may come as a surprise to some that a belief can be powerful enough to influence actual experience. However, findings across a variety of contexts have shown that our beliefs can have a powerful effect on the reality we experience or perceive. In the context of medicine, we refer to this phenomenon as the placebo effect: If we believe that a pill will cure our illness, we stand a better chance of being cured by it. The placebo effect occurs in other domains as well, including consumption domains. For example, one set of studies by Shiv, Carmon, and Ariely (2005) showed that when consumers pay full price for an energy drink, they experience more of its purported benefits than those who pay a discounted price – even when it is the exact same drink.

The lassi study yielded a second – and to me, more interesting – result. Even those who stated that they strongly disagreed with the statement, “Food that is unhealthy generally tastes better,” reported finding the lassi that was portrayed as unhealthy to taste better than did the group that was told it was healthy. This suggests that the unhealthy = tasty intuition operates at a subconscious level; people are not even aware that their taste perceptions were influenced by the intuition, which explains the discrepancy between their reported beliefs about the relationship between healthiness and tastiness, and their ratings and enjoyment of lassi.

The idea that one could be unaware of the influence of one’s beliefs on one’s decisions may appear unnerving, but most of our decision making occurs subconsciously, as research by Chartrand and Bargh (1999), Dijksterhuis (2004), and others over the past two decades has shown. Indeed, Dijksterhuis’ (2004) work suggests that we may be better off letting our subconscious make our decisions for us – especially when the decisions have important consequences.

However, in the case of the unhealthy = tasty intuition, its non-conscious influence is definitely bad. In a follow-up study that some of my colleagues and I conducted (Raghunathan et al 2013), we found that those who believe in this intuition are more likely to be overweight or obese. For example, among those who “strongly agree” with this intuition, the average body mass index (BMI) was 28.3, whereas among those who “strongly disagree” with it, the BMI was a much healthier 23.2. (Those with a BMI greater than 25 are considered overweight; those with a BMI greater than 30 are considered obese. A BMI between 18 and 25 is considered healthy. )

These results suggest that those who believe in the unhealthy = tasty intuition tend to eat fattier, unhealthier foods. In a series of follow-up studies (Raghunathan et al 2013), we explored two reasons why those with a stronger belief in the unhealthy = tasty intuition are more likely to consume less healthy food. First, we found that those who believe that it is not possible to make food tastier without sacrificing its healthiness are more likely to enjoy unhealthy (vs. healthy) foods, such as fried or sugary items. By contrast, those who do not believe that it is necessary to sacrifice healthiness to enhance the flavour of food enjoy both healthy and unhealthy items equally, since they do not think such items are less tasty. Further, on the occasions in which those who believe in the unhealthy = tasty intuition do consume healthy food – either because they are forced to, or because they decide to exercise some self-control – they are more likely to feel that they “deserve to eat something tasty” on a future occasion. For example, after just having consumed a salad or protein shake, those who subscribe strongly to the unhealthy = tasty intuition believe that they deserve a tasty end to their meal, and this, in turn, steers them towards unhealthy food, such as gulab jamun or cheesecake. In comparison, those who do not subscribe as strongly to the intuition do not feel that they deserve something tasty after having consumed a healthy meal.

Given the negative impact of the unhealthy = tasty intuition on food choice, it is important to look at why people believe in it in the first place. In other words, what are the sources for the intuition?

In a study that two ISB marketing faculty members, Tanuka Ghoshal and Rishtee Batra, and I hope to conduct in the near future, our focus will be on exploring whether the advent of fast food chains (such as Pizza Hut and McDonald’s) fosters belief in the unhealthy = tasty intuition. To test our prediction, we will collect data on the strength of belief in this intuition from respondents from urban areas (for example, Hyderabad), semi-urban areas (Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan) and rural areas (Poondi, a village in Tamil Nadu) in India. We will also gather data from various age groups, ranging from young teenagers to octogenarians. Finally, we will collect data on the respondents’ proximity to fast food chains.

We expect to find that those in rural (versus urban) centres are less likely to believe in the unhealthy = tasty intuition. Indeed, we expect them to believe in the reverse (as do the French and Japanese); that is, we expect them to believe that healthy food is tastier. Our expectation is based on the premise that for those in rural areas, healthy food is associated with freshness, rather than with fattiness, saltiness or sugariness. We also expect that those from an older generation (i.e., those over 50) are less likely to believe in this intuition, since they grew up in an era in which eating out, particularly in fast food restaurants, was unheard of. Finally, we expect to find
that the greater the respondents’ proximity to fast food chains, the greater their strength of belief in the unhealthy = tasty intuition.

In other words, we expect to find that proximity to fast food is a significant contributor to belief in the unhealthy = tasty intuition. Our reasoning for this prediction is as follows. The more one eats fast food – that is, processed food and food high in fats, sugars and salts – the more one is likely to become familiar with its taste. This familiarity, in turn, is likely to lead these consumers to find “normal” food – that is, unprocessed food and food that is lighter – to be less tasty. In essence, what starts out as an inexpensive and convenient option (fast food) turns into a corrupting influence: it leads one to believe that one cannot enhance the tastiness of food without sacrificing its healthiness.

Regardless of the source of the unhealthy = tasty intuition, what is not in doubt is that it has a pernicious influence. Indeed, findings from one study (Raghunathan et al 2013) indicate that even those who think that belief in the intuition helps them make better food choices end up making worse choices. In this study, my colleagues and I asked respondents to indicate their strength of belief in the unhealthy = tasty intuition and also asked them to indicate whether they thought that it helped or hurt them make better food choices. We then gave these respondents the opportunity to choose among various types of food options, some healthy and others unhealthy. Our findings revealed that these respondents’ relative preference for unhealthy (versus healthy) food was determined only by their strength of belief in the intuition and not by their belief about whether it helped (or hurt) them. Indeed, there was no difference in food choice between those who thought that the intuition helped them and those who thought that it hurt them.

The lassi study yielded a second – and to me, more interesting – result. Even those who stated that they strongly disagreed with the statement, “Food that is unhealthy generally tastes better,” reported fi nding the lassi that was portrayed as unhealthy to taste better than did the group that was told it was healthy.

If the study that Ghoshal, Batra and I propose to conduct in India supports our prediction that proximity to fast food chains fosters belief in the intuition, some important consequences for policy makers and businesses would follow. For one, I hope to convince policy makers in the United States to enact initiatives that alert consumers of fast food into recognizing the inadvertent consequences of patronizing such food for their belief in the unhealthy = tasty intuition.

I am also hoping to persuade business leaders to do something that they may find counterintuitive: not advertise the health benefits of their healthy options. As exemplified in the case of McLean, I believe that consumers will be more likely to choose healthier options if the healthiness of these options is not advertised. Thus, ironically, while the managers of restaurants and fast food chains may feel that they would be hurting the sales of their healthy items by not advertising these items’ healthiness, I believe that this will actually enhance the popularity of these items.

It will likely take time for these – and other such proposals – to be enacted. Till then, you can do yourself a favour by mitigating your own belief in the intuition.

*This article references an earlier article by the author titled “The Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition: Are You Under its Subconscious Influence?” on PsychologyToday.com, April 13, 2011. For further information about Raj Raghunathan’s research interests and his forthcoming book on happiness, visit www.happysmarts.com

Further Reading
Shiv, Baba, Ziv Carmon and Dan Ariely (2005). “Placebo Effects of Marketing Actions: Consumers May Get What they Pay For” , Journal of Marketing Research, 42(4): 383 – 393.

Bargh, John A, and Tanya L Chartrand (1999). “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being”, American Psychologist, 54(7): 462-479.

Dijksterhuis, A (2004). “Think Different: The Merits of Unconscious Thought in Preference Development and Decision Making”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(5):586-598.

Raghunathan, Rajagopal, Rebecca W Naylor and Wayne Hoyer (2006). “The ‘Unhealthy = Tasty’ Intuition and its Effects on Taste-Inferences, Enjoyment and Choice of Food Products”, Journal of Marketing, 70(4): 170-184.

Raghunathan, Rajagopal, Rebecca W Naylor, Kalpesh Desai, and Kelly Haws (2013). “Evil Intuitions: Why the ‘Unhealthy = Tasty’ Intuition may lead to Unhealthy Food Choices,” Working Paper, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

  • Raj-Raghunathan-feb7

    Raj Raghunathan

    Professor of Marketing, McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin; Visiting faculty at the Indian School of Business.
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