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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The psychology of calorie counting

A fried-prawn-filled Louisiana po’boy sandwich and a pile of onion rings occupy a plate at the Edgewater Lounge in Newport, Wash., in 2021.  (Spokesman-Review photo archives)
By Elaine Williams Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – Something as simple as the font size of calorie counts on menus can encourage customers to choose more wholesome foods when they are dining at restaurants.

That is the finding of a study that appeared this year in the International Journal of Hospitality Management.

The lead researcher was Ruiying Cai, an assistant professor at Washington State University’s School of Hospitality Business Management in the Carson College of Business.

“When restaurants use a larger font size for the calorie content of healthy foods, even though the number itself has a smaller value, it will increase consumers’ preference to order the healthier item,” she said in a news release.

That insight and others from her work are getting increasing attention from around the world with her research amassing more than 1,000 citations, Cai said in an email.

She has been interviewed by journalists in the Pacific Northwest, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland, she said.

In the study featured in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, participants were asked to choose between a more decadent item such as hamburger and a healthier option like a grilled chicken sandwich.

They were randomly assigned to two groups. In one group, calorie counts for foods with higher calorie counts appeared in bigger fonts than those with lower calorie counts.

“In the second group, the relationship between the numbers’ magnitude and their size was incongruent, meaning the font size became smaller as the number values rose and vice versa,” according to the release.

Participants who saw low calorie counts printed in large fonts were more likely to lean toward the healthier option, according to the news release.

Less health conscious respondents were most affected, especially when they had little time to decide, according to the news release.

Those with a high level of health awareness were less likely to be swayed, but this is likely because they already favored healthy food, Cai said in the news release.

Embedded in Cai’s study is a principle called the “numerical Stroop effect” that uses incongruity to make pieces of information more noticeable and slightly decelerate the decision-making process.

Historically, the concept has been used in other ways such as measuring attention spans and processing speeds in patients.

How much Cai’s work will shape the hospitality industry is not clear.

“I have not yet received direct feedback or confirmation from anyone regarding the adoption of our findings,” she said in an email.

Her interest in the topic goes back to 2018 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration introduced the Menu Labeling Act, which requires all restaurants with 20 or more locations to provide nutritional information on their menus.

“In conversations with restaurant owners and their management teams, I … heard reservations about emphasizing the healthy label,” Cai said. “They expressed concerns that doing so often led to the misconception that ‘healthy’ meant ‘not tasty,’ which, in turn, had the unintended consequence of undermining their genuine efforts to promote healthy eating.”

In other words, dishes identified with words such as “healthy” are frequently not as popular as ones without those labels, which can make them less appealing and more challenging for restaurants to offer.

Cai’s research is ongoing. Since the article about steering diners toward healthy choices appeared, International Journal of Hospitality Management has published another story about her work.

This time Cai looked at the impact of artificial intelligence technology on customers’ willingness to provide praise or criticism to frontline personnel.

“I hope this research can serve as a pioneering initiative to encourage customers to provide compliments to hospitality professionals through AI-mediated platforms, particularly in light of the industry’s ongoing challenges in retaining and recruiting talent in these trying times,” she said.

Her research is part of a busy schedule that includes teaching two hospitality classes each semester and being the faculty adviser for the Eta Sigma Delta International Hospitality Management Society, an international honor society for hospitality students.

Her instructional strategy focuses on bridging the gap between the classroom and the private sector partly through up-to-date examples, she said.

“I often invite industry professionals to share insights with my students and encourage students to apply their classroom knowledge to practical scenarios,” Cai said.

Cai brings an international perspective to her field. She was raised in the port city of Xiamen, China, a short ferry ride from the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site of Gulangyu.

The site is on an island known for its architecture and beaches, and is one of China’s most visited tourist attractions.

As part of her undergraduate work at Xiamen University, she was an exchange student at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, where she saw how higher education in Western societies is different than China, she said.

One of her courses was taught by a professor from the United States. During The Netherlands’ many national holidays, she explored European destinations, observing the behaviors of travelers and hospitality professionals.

In between her college studies, Cai has held positions in hospitality such as a tourism marketing consultant for Hongkong Ronghui Investment Group, management trainee for The Emperor Hotel Beijing, a boutique hotel, server for the convention center at the Coeur d’Alene Resort and event coordinator for Kempinski Hotel Xiamen.

She sees her research continuing.

“When conceptualizing new research ideas, I am driven by a desire to ensure that they not only contribute to academic knowledge, but also provide valuable insights and solutions that can be genuinely beneficial to the industry,” she said.