Should consumers be given a junk food option?

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woman eating chips

After a long day of networking, presentations and workshops at the MenuDirections conference last month, I was hit with a sudden craving for a sweet or salty snack. I hadn’t eaten badly during the day, so I justified it as my little reward at the end of a long work day. I hunted down the hotel vending machine, and was deflated to see it full of healthy snacks only. No licorice, no M&M’s, no potato chips. Just protein bars, all-natural peanut butter snacks and dried fruit. Practical? Yes. Craveable? Not even close.

Sure, people say they want more healthful options. More than a third of consumers (and half of those ages 25 to 34) are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers some healthful selections, according to market researcher (and FSD sister company) Technomic, even if they don’t end up ordering those items. And 44 percent say restaurants should offer healthier beverages. Broaden the definition of  “healthy,” and you sweep up even more consumers in the net: Nearly 9 in 10 say they want restaurants to be more transparent about what’s in their food, and nearly half (40 percent) are more concerned about additives than they were two years ago.

But really, consumers’ views of health are constantly shifting. “It’s about balance, not losing weight,” Kelly Weikel, Technomic’s director of consumer insights, said onstage at the conference earlier that day. And the key sentiment in those statistics is choice.

FSDs with a desire to steer customers to more healthful picks may do so using “choice architecture,” a term Google’s director of global food services used to describe placing better-for-you options front and center, as the tech company does at its employee-feeding operations. FSD magazine has spotlighted other operators promoting healthier options by making those items more visible, if not doing away with more indulgent dishes altogether. The Ohio State University relegates fried foods to the back of its newly remodeled dining hall. The University of Washington reversed the order of the food at its athletes’ table so vegetables are displayed first, and students build their plates with those items before proteins. Several other operators—though still offering sugary drinks and sodas—are placing them behind frosted glass or lower down in the refrigerated case so they’re not at eye level.

That I don’t mind. Any other time, I might have chosen the flavored water over diet soda. But late at night, as a treat to myself, it would have been worth the extra effort to indulge in the sugary beverage. The point: Serving healthy options is not an all-or-nothing proposition. So, give me health or give me death (if that’s how you view the alternative). But above all, let me choose.

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