Forward thinking, prompts linked with healthier food choices

Food Science

Scott Schrage, August 24, 2022

Forward thinking, prompts linked with healthier food choices


Welcome to Pocket Science: a glimpse at recent research from Husker scientists and engineers. For those who want to quickly learn the “What,” “So what” and “Now what” of Husker research.

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Cheerios or Froot Loops? Whole-wheat or white bread? Spinach or iceberg lettuce?

What seem like trivial choices in the daily scrum of a grocery store can add up across a lifetime of eating. The record-high rates of obesity in the United States especially reflect a bit-by-bit consequence of picking less-nutritious foods over healthier alternatives.

Those choices can stem, in part, from a willingness to sacrifice long-term health benefits for short-term indulgences that are rooted in evolutionary preferences for sugars and fats. Still, ample research indicates that people who do consider the future implications of their decisions — or can be persuaded to — often choose options that are better for their bank accounts, their relationships and their bodies.

So what?

Christopher Gustafson

Nebraska’s Christopher Gustafson designed an online grocery experiment, involving a nationally representative sample of 4,622 Americans, to evaluate the effects of health-conscious foresight. Participants were tasked with choosing one item, at most, from 33 options in each of five categories: breakfast cereals, breads, crackers, pastas/rice/legumes and produce. Each of the 165 items featured a nutritional rating, on a 0- to 3-star system, that was kept from the participants. But the shoppers were provided with nutritional panels that displayed each item’s calories, fat, sodium, sugar and fiber content.

Following the simulated shopping, participants completed a questionnaire that included a question about which factors they considered during the shopping session. Among the options: “Impacts the foods might have on your/your family’s health in the future.” Those who reported considering the long-term health implications of their decisions did select healthier items — especially in terms of processed foods, with their average choice rating 0.2 points higher on the 0- to 3-star nutritional scale.

Before taking part in the online shopping, half of the sample also received a short prompt summarizing five health benefits of dietary fiber. When controlling for demographics, people who spent at least three seconds with the prompt were 1.3 times more likely to report factoring in future health consequences. Those who read the prompt for at least 10 seconds were 1.6 times more likely to — and choose healthier foods in turn.

Now what?

Because the grocery choices were hypothetical, future research should try to determine whether the seeming influence of long-term thinking holds in actual shopping scenarios, Gustafson said. But the study is just the latest piece of evidence to suggest that point-of-sale prompts can encourage consumers to make healthier decisions.

Food Science