News | Monday, 5th August 2019

Fast-food menus can be rearranged to encourage healthier choices, research shows

Study at McDonald’s outlets showed consumers were ‘nudged’ towards low-sugar drinks

Fast-food menus can be rearranged to encourage healthier choices, research shows
Fast-food menus can be rearranged to encourage healthier choices, research shows. Image: Shutterstock

Menu layouts can encourage consumers to make healthier drinks choices in restaurants, new research suggests.

A study, by Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Warwick, found that when traditional Coca-Cola was placed more prominently at the top of a touch-screen menu on electronic kiosks found in fast food restaurants, customers were most likely to select the sugar variant of the drink.

But when its menu position was swapped with sugar-free Coke Zero, sales jumped by about 30% for the sugar-free version while the sugar-filled Coca-Cola dropped by around 8%, a new study published in the Journal of Psychology and Marketing shows.

The results provide interesting insight into how retailers and food outlets can help encourage – or nudge – consumer decisions by making small tweaks to their store or menu layout, for example, and thereby improve public health.

The researchers partnered with McDonald’s, analysing the self-serve kiosks in 622 of the company’s UK stores. They found that Coca-Cola was McDonald’s best-selling drink on the electronic kiosks.

To conduct the experiment, Coca-Cola’s sugar version was placed first on the menu – a prime top left position – with the other drinks and flavours following (see graphic below) for 12 weeks. This was then swapped for another 12 weeks, with Coke Zero placed in the prominent top-left position.

The sales of Coca-Cola went down from an average of 4,558 to 4,213 drinks per store, while Coke Zero sales went up from on average 1,043 to 1,360 during the swap. The results were broadly consistent across all the outlets.

Obesity crisis

Dr Kelly Ann Schmidtke, Psychology Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and lead researcher, said: “Electronic kiosks are becoming the industry‐standard in fast food retailing, so by building on what we already know about menu positions influencing choice, this is the perfect tool to use to try and implement a health intervention and the results are not at all surprising.

 “Public health interventions aim to change people’s unhealthy behaviours through harder or softer mechanisms. We wanted to test a simple, light-touch and low-cost nudge intervention that could make a difference in the current obesity crisis, and provide insight into a very important consumer‐relevant question: how to influence consumers to buy healthier food products, especially at fast‐food outlets?”

Diagram showing the drink positioning on the menus before and after intervention


Nearly half of people’s food-related behaviours are habitual and cued by a physical stimulus,  the smell of McDonald’s for example, and can have some command over their behaviour. The researchers say that this could be the reason so many people automatically select the first option on the menu – in this case Coca-Cola.

Dr Schmidtke added: “Habits can have some command over people’s behaviour but there is also room for a nudge. When people’s habitual behaviour is disrupted it can spur them to think about their actions and sometimes guide new choices.

“In this case, altering the order of items that appear on the screen can be seen to disrupt the perceptual stimulus of the Coca-Cola icon that many customers first look at and consequently, in some cases, gave them a chance to think about choosing a healthier option.

“This research demonstrates that nudge interventions can work in helping people to think in different ways.

“Although these interventions alone will not solve the obesity and overconsumption problems in the UK, nudges should be considered as part of a multifaceted approach to helping consumers make more healthful choices.”

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