Incentives get results in efforts to encourage health-conscious eating

April 25, 2016

By Jay Wrolstad

Cornell study finds a positive path to healthy eating: good food choices increase with behavioral reward incentivesHealthy eating habits are more important than ever, with advocates calling for fast-food restaurants, schools, and other food providers to promote the sales of salads and vegetables as alternatives to burgers and fries. The most effective strategy for influencing healthy food choices is not calorie counts and reduced prices, but rather more subtle behavioral reward incentives, according to new research by Cornell faculty.

The study, “McHealthy: How Marketing Incentives Influence Healthy Food Choices,” was recently accepted by the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly (CQ). The authors are Elisa K. Chan of the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, HES-SO, University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland (and graduate of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration); Robert Kwortnik, an associate professor at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration (SHA); and Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell’s Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Their research shows that consumers with less-healthy eating habits, and those who are overweight, benefit more from long-term “points” rewards incentives than if they are offered price reductions of an equal value. At the same time, price breaks lead to more purchases of less-healthy items among healthy eaters.

The findings are significant because they reveal a positive path to healthy eating, as opposed to the punitive path.In one study, a reward-points group of customers was told that they would receive 50 points equivalent to 50 cents on a points-collection card redeemable for future purchases if they chose the targeted food item. The price-discount group would receive 50 cents off the price of a specified meal.

“The findings are significant because they reveal a positive path—behavioral rewards for making good food choices—to healthy eating, as opposed to the punitive path (e.g., calorie counting or food restrictions ),” Kwortnik says. “We find that offering rewards, such as points that can be redeemed later, encourages healthy food choices, especially for consumers with bad eating habits. So restaurants can encourage repeat patronage with reward programs and encourage healthy eating by rewarding consumers for making better choices. It’s a win-win.”

For consumers, behavioral-rewards programs introduce more variety, especially among healthy food choices—and, more importantly, consumers are rewarded for making smarter choices. “As the current studies indicate, incentivizing with behavioral rewards is more effective for consumers who are either overweight or junk-food junkies. Fast-food restaurants’ efforts to market healthy menu options have little effect on consumers’ choices. When awareness is high among patrons, the next step is to generate action.The points received for each healthy choice not only lead to a reward (e.g., accumulated cash value or free food), but also signify the otherwise-intangible benefits of an isolated act of eating healthy,” the study states.

For foodservice providers, healthy-eating incentives help build a better brand at a lower cost. While fast-food restaurants spend millions on marketing healthy menu options, these efforts have little effect on consumers’ choices, researchers say. When the awareness of healthy food offers is high among patrons, the next step is to generate action.

“Rather than overtly telling consumers to eat better, we propose, and show through the empirical results, that behavioral reward programs trigger a longer-term view that coincides with longer-term goals to eat healthy vs. more immediate goals to indulge in typically less-healthy foods such as fries, salty snacks, or sweets,” says Kwortnik.

Healthy young woman eating saladThe findings also provide a better solution for governments and policymakers that rely on taxation and regulation to promote healthy eating. While those solutions place undesirable burdens on businesses, the report states, “Policies or regulations to encourage behavioral reward programs are unlikely to stimulate negative reactions from food companies because such programs help promote the healthy food items already on their menus and encourage repeat customers.”

The paper will be publicly available in the next few months. Visit for online CQ content.

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