Forward Thinking, Prompts Related to Healthier Food Choices | Nebraska Today

Welcome to Pocket Science: A glimpse into the latest research from Husker scientists and engineers. For those who want to know “what”, “so what”, and “what now” of Husker research.


Cheerios or Froot Loops? Whole grain or white bread? Spinach or iceberg lettuce?

What seems like a frivolous choice in the daily scrum of the grocery store can add up over a lifetime of eating. Little by little, it reflects the consequences of choosing low-value foods.

These choices may arise, in part, from our willingness to sacrifice long-term health benefits for short-term luxuries rooted in our evolutionary preferences for sugar and fat. Studies show that people who consider or can be persuaded by the future implications of their decisions often choose options that are better for their bank accounts, relationships, and bodies.

so what?

Christopher Gustafson of Nebraska designed an online grocery experiment involving 4,622 nationally representative Americans to assess the impact of health-conscious foresight. Participants were assigned to select up to one item from 33 options in each of his five categories: breakfast cereals, breads, crackers, pasta/rice/legumes, and produce. Each of the 165 items was characterized by a nutritional rating that was protected from participants on a 0- to 3-star system. However, shoppers were provided with nutrition panels that displayed the calorie, fat, sodium, sugar and fiber content of each item.

After the simulated shopping, participants completed a questionnaire containing questions about the factors they considered during the shopping session. Among the choices is “the impact the food may have on your or your family’s health in the future.” Those who reported that their decisions considered long-term health implications chose healthier items. For processed foods in particular, her average choice rating was 0.2 points higher on a 0- to 3-star nutrition scale.

Before participating in online shopping, half of the samples also received a brief prompt outlining five health benefits of dietary fiber. When adjusting for demographics, those who spent at least 3 seconds on the prompt were 1.3 times more likely to report that he took future health effects into account. Those who read the prompt for more than 10 seconds made him 1.6 times more likely to choose healthier foods.


Grocery choices are hypothetical, so future research needs to determine whether the effects of long-term thinking apply to real-world shopping scenarios, Gustafsson said. But this study is just the latest evidence to suggest that POS prompts can encourage consumers to make healthier decisions.

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