Low-fat fare earns high marks from food lovers

by Stephen Forgacs

Staff writer

Healthy restaurant fare has won a hearty endorsement from any restaurant's greatest critics--its customers.

UBC researchers found that hundreds of diners at nine Vancouver restaurants consistently ranked lower fat menu items as being significantly more satisfying than regular menu items.

In a study undertaken by former School of Family and Nutritional Sciences master's student Patricia Fitzpatrick, Asst. Prof. Gwen Chapman and Prof. Susan Barr, restaurant customers were asked to rank their satisfaction with lower fat and regular menu items, based on their impressions of the item's taste, "doneness," lack of fat or grease, freshness, portion size, temperature, presentation, value for price and overall satisfaction.

The results contradict a belief that Chapman says is held by many people.

"There's a common perception that if something's good for you it doesn't taste good and vice versa. That idea has also been expressed by people in other research I've done, and is reinforced to a certain extent in some advertising," she says.

Although Chapman wasn't surprised to see that perception test false, she was surprised to find that even when people were mistaken as to whether they had eaten a lower fat or regular item, ranking of falsely identified items still matched the overall satisfaction rankings. Customers who believed they had eaten regular items but were in fact eating lower fat items consistently ranked those items as being more satisfying. Those who thought they had eaten lower fat items but actually ate regular items ranked those items lower on the satisfaction scale.

The purpose of the study was to evaluate customer satisfaction with the "Fresh Choice" restaurant-based nutrition program which was designed to give restaurant patrons "healthy" or lower fat options. The program was developed by the Vancouver Health Dept., the Restaurant and Food Services Association of Greater Vancouver, and the British Columbia's Chefs' Association. The UBC study measured customer satisfaction with menu items and assessed restaurant patrons' acceptance of and attitude toward the Fresh Choice program.

The researchers surveyed nearly 700 people and later interviewed nine diners -- one from each restaurant -- regarding eating out habits, beliefs about nutrition and health, perception of the Fresh Choice program and the role of nutrition initiatives in restaurants.

"The main theme that emerged from the interviews was the importance of eating out as an indulgence," Chapman says.

All interviewees agreed that there is a need for programs such as Fresh Choice and liked being given the option to choose or not to choose a healthier menu item. They did not want to be presented with a lot of nutrition information. Interviewees who ate out less frequently said they tended to use those occasions to indulge in foods they considered less healthy but desirable.

Chapman says that while all menu items, whether regular or lower fat, generally received high satisfaction rankings, the consistently higher rankings received by lower fat items sends an important message to restaurants.

"Our findings suggest that providing healthier choices on restaurant menus and serving those items will not diminish the level of customer satisfaction," Chapman says. "Even lower fat items should meet a customer's desire to indulge."