Epicurean Nudging: Pleasure as a path to healthier eating

Family of disposable coffee/tea cups

Pierre Chandon, L’Oreal Chaired Professor of Marketing, Innovation and Creativity, INSEAD and Director of the INSEAD-Sorbonne University Behavioural Lab


I was about to give a talk at the Harvard School of Public Health when a distinguished nutritionist came to me and told me that he believed that the CEOs of Coca-Cola, Pepsico, General Mills, and Kellogg’s should be in jail. I asked why, and he said: “because all they sell is food that has no nutritional value, junk food that is all pleasure and no health.”

I was shocked, because this opinion came from a very prestigious scientist, not some twitter troll, but also because all the work that I’ve been doing at INSEAD for the past 15 years says that it is wrong. What I’d like to show you today is that pleasure can actually be a path to healthier eating and that food marketing, by focusing on the pleasure of eating, not on health, can be a force for good, starting by helping food marketers like me stay out of jail.

I call this approach Epicurean nudging. Nudging because it is based on the work on nudges for which Richard Thaler won the Nobel prize in Economics last year. The idea that, rather than forcing people to behave a certain way through restrictions, taxes or fines, you can lead them towards healthier decisions, like eating better, with just small changes to the choice environment while preserving their freedom of eat junk food if they want. Epicurean because it is entirely consistent with the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus who, twenty three hundred years ago, wrote to his friend Menoeceus that the wise person doesn’t choose the largest amount of food, but the most pleasing.

The limits of improving what we eat

The idea for Epicurean nudging came to me after my earlier research had shown the limits of just improving what we eat. Whenever I talk to doctors, journalists or epidemiologists they always ask me: Why can’t food marketers just sell healthier foods? You know what all these people who think is easy have in common? They are childless! The second unintended consequence of focusing on what we eat, is what I call health halos. It is often enough for a food to be able to claim that it is low in fat, or sugar to be categorized as “healthy”. And some consumers will think: “hey, if it’s healthy, I can eat more!”. In one study for example, we served people the exact same chocolate candies but either called them “regular” or low fat”. We went to the M&M’s website where you can customize them but, instead of writing “I love you” or “Happy Birthday”, we wrote “Light M&M’s” or “Low-fat M&M’s”. (Just so you know, there is no such thing as low-fat M&M’s. We just lied to the participants…but we debriefed them afterwards of course, explaining why we used this deception).

When the M&M’s were called “regular”, people served themselves a regular portion. But when they were called “low fat”, some people actually dumped their cups into the bowl instead of using the spoon. And overweight people actually served themselves 46% more without realizing it, as you can see from the calorie estimate.

From improving what we eat, to how we eat

To summarize, focusing on improving the nutritional quality of the food has limits because it can lead to rejections or to health halos. The promise of Epicurean nudging is that it that, by moving from improving what we eat, to how we eat, it is possible to make us happier to spend more money on less food, a triple win for health, business, and pleasure.

Why? As consumers, we have much stronger preferences for what to eat than for how much to eat. We just want a normal size. The problem is, with today’s supersizing trends, a “normal” doesn’t mean anything anymore. When you go to a fast-food restaurant for example, you have a choice between a small, medium, or large cup. If you’re an adult, you’re probably hesitating between the medium and the large. What you probably fail to realize is that even the small size, the kid size, in a fast food restaurant today is larger than what used to be the regular size for an adult not so long ago. In fact, for the first 60 years, Coca-Cola was only available in one size, 19cl or 6.5 oz., which is less than the kid’s size today. And these larger sizes are so profitable that convenience stores and movie theaters have kept introducing larger and larger sizes. Even if you’ll never consider today’s humongous soda cups as appropriate for a single serving of soda, the simple fact that they are available changes our perception of what is a normal size: It makes the old large size look totally normal.

Less size: Making reasonable portions look normal again

What can we do? One simple solution, a nudging solution, is to add a small size back into the range. This way, some people will choose it. Even if no-one chooses the new small, it makes the old small become the new medium, “a normal”, and more people will be willing to buy it, and they will be willing to pay more for it, allowing the restaurants to make more by selling less.

More generally, the research that I’ve done with former INSEAD PhD student Nailya Ordabayeva shows that we are so bad at perceiving volume that, if you double the size of anything, including a soda cup, it doesn’t look 100% bigger, it looks 50-70% bigger. On the other hand, if you try to reduce a size and you just cut the height of a tube, people will notice immediately. But if you elongate the package by increasing its height while strongly reducing its base, you can cut up to 24% without people noticing, even when they are trying really hard. That’s because our senses are “bad at geometry” and add the changes in height, width and length instead of multiplying them.

More pleasure: Making sensory experience core again

Epicurean nudging isn’t just about smart downsizing and making reasonable sizes look normal again. More fundamentally, it’s also about helping people realize that a smaller portion is actually best, not just from a health point of view, but from a pleasure point of view.

Imagine that you are at the end of a meal and choosing between having the full chocolate cake, sharing it with a friend, or just taking a bite. People in this situation tend to focus on two things that drive them towards larger sizes. The first is hunger. You look at the small size and think “will I still be hungry after eating this”? And this makes you take a large one. The second aspect is value for money. For example, when I choose the smaller bag of popcorn at the movie theater, I always feel that I’m being ripped off because, for just a few cents more, I could have had a much larger bag. And value for money also steers us towards larger portions

With a former INSEAD PhD student, Yann Cornil, we realized that there is something that goes into the opposite direction, and it’s something we have all experienced: the sensory experience of eating. We all know that the first bite, the first mouthful, is what gives us the highest pleasure. The first spoon of chocolate mousse, for example, provides this WOW effect. The second is still pleasurable but less, and the last one is actually pretty bland. What most people forget, and this is very important, is that the overall pleasure of that chocolate mousse is not the sum of the pleasure of each bite, but the average. So, the last spoonful of chocolate mousse, instead of adding a little bit of bland pleasure, subtracts from the overall experience and reduces it by pulling the average down. And that’s why we always regret that last spoon of chocolate mousse.

Epicurean nudging promises that, if we put the sensory experience of eating back at the center of the decision of how much to eat, we can nudge people to choose a smaller portion, not because of health or dieting, but because of pleasure.

We tested this idea in many studies in France and in the US, with children and adults, including in one conducted at the cafeteria of the Bocuse Culinary Institute near Lyon. We had 109 people who came and paid €15 for a meal, an “all you can eat lunch”, where they could order as many portions of appetizer, main course, and dessert as they wanted. We had 3 conditions. In the control condition, it was just a regular menu. In the second condition, we provided in the menu information about calories and fat. In the third condition, we used a sensory menu which described very beautifully all the sensory aspects of eating the food, the tastes, the aromas, the textures, etc.

In the control condition, people ate about 1,000 calories. When we added nutrition information, people got scared and ate 32% less: 681 calories. In fact, we believe that some of these people stopped at McDonald’s on the way back after lunch, because they ate so little! The sensory menu led to a smaller, more sustainable reduction of intake by 19%. But the big difference is that the nutrition menu reduced intake but also reduced satisfaction and the overall perceived value of the meal from €17 to €15. In contrast, the sensory menu, which also reduced eating, actually increased satisfaction and increased the fair value of the meal to €20. In other words, Epicurean nudging made people happier to spend more for less food.

Overall, what have we learned?

  1. As consumers and parent, we need to remember that Epicurus was right: Pleasure in food is not the sum of the pleasure of each bite, it does not increase with quantity but with quality.
  2. The food industry needs to stop acting as if they are in the energy business, like oil & gas: making more by selling more calories, to more people, more often. They should consider moving to an Epicurean business model, where food is not fuel but pleasure. Instead of making more by selling more, they can make more by selling less food, but more pleasure, a triple win for health, business, and pleasure, and also a way to avoid sending their food marketers to jail.


This blog is an edited text of Pierre Chandon’s talk at the 2018 TedX- INSEAD event “A New Tomorrow”. You can watch the talk here. For more videos, blogs, and research papers on Epicurean Nudging, visit www.pierrechandon.com.