I’ll have the grilled chicken…quesadilla

By Katlyn Good
A stack of Oreos

If recent food marketing campaigns can be believed, Americans are hungry for healthier food options.

Check out all the new organic brands at your local supermarket, or the “lite” grilled selections at your neighborhood fast food place. Research shows, however, that healthy options do not always lead to healthier dining decisions.

The mere presence of a healthy item on a menu or in a vending machine seems to be enough to satisfy a long-term goal of “eating healthy” so completely it allows consumers to make more indulgent decisions, as Beth Vallen, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing, reports in a paper she recently co-authored.

When a healthier option was factored into the mix, individuals with the most self-control in the test group were even more likely to make an unhealthy food choice.

Vallen, whose expertise lies in the realm of self-control and food-related decision-making, teamed up with three professors from other institutions to research and write the paper, “Vicarious Goal Fulfillment: When the Mere Presence of a Healthy Option Leads to an Ironically Indulgent Decision.”

Published in the October 2009 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, the research has been cited in The New York Times and Time magazine and was honored in May with the “Best Paper Award” at the American Marketing Association’s annual Marketing and Public Policy Conference.

“Our findings show that when consumers choose from a pack of chocolate-covered Oreos, a pack of regular Oreos, and a pack of 100-calorie Oreos, those with the highest levels of self-control are more likely to indulge in the least healthy chocolate-covered Oreos,” Vallen said. “In this instance, their goal of eating healthy is vicariously fulfilled by having the low-calorie option available to them, which provides them with the license to indulge.”

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