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Junk Food Junkies Go Healthy for Long-Term Rewards

Junk Food Junkies Go Healthy for Long-Term Rewards

A new study at Cornell University finds that junk food junkies are more likely to buy healthy food when it comes with a long-term reward incentive. In fact, receiving a future reward appears even more effective than an immediate price reduction of equal value.

Now that obesity is one of our nation’s biggest health concerns, nutrition advocates are calling for fast-food restaurants, schools, and food providers to promote the sale of salads and vegetables as alternatives to burgers and fries.

According to the researchers, the most effective strategy for influencing such healthy food choices is not calorie counts and reduced prices, but rather more subtle incentives that reward healthy eating behavior.

The researchers observed the effects of two types of reward-based programs: one group of customers earned reward points redeemable for later purchases and the other group received price discounts effective immediately.

In one experiment, a reward-point group of customers was told they would receive 50 reward 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 of customers was told they would receive 50 cents off the price of a specified meal.

The findings show that overweight consumers with poor eating habits benefited the most from long-term reward incentives than when they were offered price reductions of an equal value. On the other hand, healthy eaters were more likely to splurge on less healthy food when the price was right.

“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),” said study leader Robert Kwortnik, Ph.D., associate professor at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration.

“We find that offering rewards, such as points that can be redeemed later, encourage 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 food service providers, healthy eating incentives help build a better brand at a lower cost. For consumers, behavioral reward programs introduce much greater variety, especially among healthy food choices, and consumers are rewarded for making healthier choices.

The researchers note that even though fast-food restaurants spend millions on marketing healthy menu options, these efforts have little effect on consumers’ choices.

“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 versus more immediate goals to indulge in typically less healthy foods such as fries, salty snacks or sweets,” said Kwortnik.

Source: Cornell University

Man with reward for buying healthy food photo by shutterstock.

Junk Food Junkies Go Healthy for Long-Term Rewards

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Junk Food Junkies Go Healthy for Long-Term Rewards. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 30 Apr 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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