How to get more value from less food

Can descriptive language on menus encourage people to eat less and reap more health benefits?

Executive Chef Yannick Franques arranges a duck dish at the restaurant La Tour d'Argent, the oldest establishment in the French capital dating from 1582, in Paris, France, 24 March 2022. EPA
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The first bite of something delicious, say a chocolate mousse, is always the most pleasurable. The next mouthfuls are slightly less enjoyable and, if the portion is large, the last bites are often bland or make us feel queasy.

What most people fail to realise, however, is that the total enjoyment from eating is not the sum of the pleasure experienced with each bite, but its average. The last bites tend to bring the average enjoyment down, which is why we often regret them.

Drawing on this insight, Professor Yann Cornil and I have demonstrated in a series of studies that training people in a laboratory or children in schools to focus on the sensory experience of eating can increase the appeal of smaller portions. This can lead them to choose and consume less than usual.

Sensory training has proven to be effective in contexts where participants are given explicit instructions. But how can it be practically implemented using labels on food products or descriptive language on restaurant menus? And how will this influence how much customers are willing to pay?

The dishes during a media preview for a State Dinner with US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron in the White House in Washington, on November 30, 2022. The dinner included a butter poached Maine lobster, beef with shallot marmalade, American artisanal cheeses, and an orange chiffon cake for desert. AP

In our most recent paper, we show how food marketers can leverage these insights to make their customers willing to spend more on smaller food portions. This can result in a triple win for health, business and overall eating enjoyment.

Our recommendation is to emphasise the aesthetic, multi-sensory properties when describing food. We call this epicurean labelling because it is consistent with the teaching of the Greek philosopher Epicurus who wrote in a letter to Menoeceus that the wise person does not choose the largest portion of food but the most pleasing.

In our first study, we offered participants a fixed three-course lunch for €15 (Dh59)at a French culinary school cafeteria. While the food was identical, we manipulated the menu given to customers. For the control group, the menu succinctly described the meal: “Gnocchi, spinach salad, vinaigrette” as a starter, “Beef shepherd’s pie, tomato and pesto sauce” as a main dish, and “Lemon tartlets, red berry coulis” as a dessert.

The epicurean-labelled menu included descriptions with a multi-sensory focus, such as: “Lemon tartlets with red berry coulis: Crunchy pie crust pastry topped with an elegant slightly sour lemon cream, signed with a dark chocolate comma. Smooth seasonal red berry coulis”. As a benchmark, we also included a nutrition-labelled menu with the same descriptions as the control menu, but with additional information about calorie and fat content.

Products with sensory labels tended to be packaged in smaller quantities in France but were not commensurately cheaper

Paying customers could choose as many portions as they wanted and estimated a fair price for the meal they had chosen. We found that customers in the control condition had an average calorie intake of 984 kilocalories and estimated that the meal was worth €17.

In contrast, the calorie intake of those exposed to the epicurean menu was 817 kilocalories, 17 per cent less than those who ordered off the control menu. Despite eating less, customers in the epicurean condition valued the experience at €20, a 16 per cent increase over those with the control menu. Ultimately, these customers were happier and willing to pay more for less food. They also anticipated a more pleasurable experience after reading the sensory-based menu and ate at a slower pace, indicating that they savoured their food.

Customers exposed to the nutrition-labelled menu consumed just 680 kcal, 31 per cent less than the control condition. However, the decrease was so drastic that we suspect some of them stopped somewhere on the way home to get dessert! The biggest issue from a business standpoint is that they were also unsatisfied with the experience, valuing it at an estimated €15.

Raw cow's milk "Camembert de Normandie” French cheese at an exhibition centre in Paris. AFP

In essence we found that epicurean labelling had three clear advantages. First, it was better for people’s health as it encouraged people to eat moderate portions. Second, it was better for business because people ate less food for the same price. Third, it increased overall pleasure since people enjoyed the meal more.

While epicurean labelling proved effective in our French cafeteria study, we didn’t know if we would see the same effect among American customers. France and the US are at the opposite ends of a hedonic-utilitarian food attitude spectrum – the French associate eating with pleasure, while Americans focus on aspects such as nutrition and value for money. Moreover, portion sizes tend to be smaller in French restaurants.

French consumers associate pleasure in food with smaller quantity, and are willing to pay more for it, whereas Americans are willing to pay more for higher quality but don’t want less food as a result

To determine if epicurean labelling would make French, but not American, participants choose smaller portions, we replicated the cafeteria study online with hypothetical food choices. Participants were randomly assigned to see either the control or epicurean menu from the previous study. After looking at photos of the sample plates, they indicated the number of portions they would order for each dish and estimated the value of their meal.

As predicted, French respondents “ordered” smaller meals overall, while Americans chose a similar amount irrespective of the menu they read. Although Americans did not choose a smaller meal, they were willing to pay more for a meal off the epicurean menu, much like their French counterparts.

French fries at a McDonald's in Levallois-Perret, near Paris, on December 20, 2022.  AFP

Next, we examined the effect of epicurean labels on food products in French and American supermarkets. Using data collected by market research company Mintel Corporation, we compared information on the price, size and product descriptions on food packaging. We found that France had a larger proportion of products with at least one sensory descriptor.

In contrasting the average size and price of these products, we noted that products with sensory labels tended to be packaged in smaller quantities in France but were not commensurately cheaper in price. In other words, the price per kilogram was higher because they were considered premium products. In the US, however, there was hardly any difference in product size, but sensory-labelled products were markedly more expensive.

These results infer that food marketers in these two countries use different rules when setting the price and package size of products with sensory labels. It seems that French consumers associate pleasure in food with smaller quantity, and are willing to pay more for it, whereas Americans are willing to pay more for higher quality but don’t want less food as a result.

In the fight against obesity, public health authorities have tried to promote moderate eating and healthy diets by adding nutrition labels to food products and menus. Here, we argue that emphasising the aesthetic, multisensory properties of food is a promising alternative.

Diners at an outdoor restaurant in Sacramento, California. AP

More generally, food companies need to change their business model. Rather than selling more calories to more people for more money the “food as fuel” model – they need to grow their business by selling fewer calories but more enjoyment, the “food as pleasure” model.

Our findings also challenge the widely held belief that pleasure is the enemy of healthy eating – an attitude that is more pervasive in the US. We prove that underscoring the aesthetic, multi-sensory dimensions of pleasure through epicurean labelling can promote portion control (a win for health), encourage savouring (a win for pleasure) and increase the monetary valuation of smaller portions (a win for business).

Yann Cornil is an Associate Professor of Marketing & Behavioural Sciences at the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business.

Pierre Chandon is the L’Oreal Chaired Professor of Marketing - Innovation and Creativity at Insead and the Director of the Insead-Sorbonne Universite Behavioural Lab.

This article was first published in Insead Knowledge

Published: January 11, 2023, 7:00 AM