A new study has shown that even in the presence of healthy food people are likely to opt for unhealthy choices.
According to authors Keith Wilcox (City University of New York), Beth Vallen (Loyola College), Lauren Block (City University of New York), and Gavan J. Fitzsimons (Duke University), consumers may feel they have fulfilled a healthy eating goal even if they choose an unhealthy food, and the presence of a healthy option among food choices may draw their attention to the least-healthy choice available.
"Just because we consumers want to see healthier items available does not mean that we are going to choose them," wrote the authors.
"We present evidence that for many consumers, the addition of healthy alternatives to food choice sets can, ironically, increase the consumption of very indulgent food items," they added.
In the new study, the researchers examined how consumers' food choices differed when a healthy item was included in a set compared to when it was not available.
The study results showed that the mere presence of a healthy item vicariously fulfils health-related eating goals and drives attention to the least-healthy choices.
They also demonstrated that these effects were more pronounced in people with relatively high levels of self-control.
During the study, the participants chose from a menu that included French fries, chicken nuggets, and a baked potato or these items plus a side salad.
After being told that each item cost the same amount of money, respondents were instructed to choose a side dish for their lunch.
"As we predicted, when given the choice of fries, chicken nuggets, or a baked potato, people high in self-control rarely chose the fries, which are considered the least-healthy option in the set," said the authors.
"However, add the salad to the set and what happens? High self-control individuals were significantly more likely to choose the French fries," they added.
The study appears in Journal of Consumer Research.