The Demand for Food Away from Home: Do Other Preferences Compete with Our Desire to Eat Healthfully?

Article excerpt

Health-oriented government agencies have had limited success at encouraging Americans to eat a healthful diet. One reason may be that other preferences compete with our desire to eat healthfully. We explore the effect of consumer preferences on the demand for food away from home, including frequency of eating out and choice of outlet type. Preferences for convenience and ambience are found to influence behavior. Furthermore, omitting these variables from econometric models can bias the estimated effect of preferences for a healthful diet.

Key words: convenience, food away from home, nutrition, omitted-variable bias, preferences, social marketing


U.S. government agencies are encouraging Americans to eat a balanced, nutritious, and healthful diet, but most Americans do not fully act on this advice. In fact, an estimated 64% of the U.S. population is overweight or obese (Flegal et al., 2002), and only a small fraction of the American population eats the recommended daily quantity of fruits and vegetables (Produce for Better Health Foundation, 2002). One possible explanation for poor dietary habits may be that other preferences, such as the desire for convenience, compete with our desire to eat healthfully. For example, when dining away from home, consumers may be acting on their desire for a convenient meal, if purchasing fast food, or for entertainment and relaxation, if dining at a full-service restaurant.

Preferences for a healthful diet, convenience, and entertainment may be positively or negatively related, or they may be uncorrelated. It may be that people who tend to place a high value on nutrition also tend to place a high value on leisurely sit-down meals. This type of consumer might adjust the number of leisurely meals consumed in a given time period, if leisurely meals appear to conflict with a nutritious and healthful diet. However, it is also possible that another preference, say the desire for convenience, might override the desire for a healthful diet. If these types of preferences are correlated, then models accounting for only a single preference, such as proper nutrition, might suffer from omitted-variable bias. In this study, we explore how competing preferences influence the demand for food away from home, and how omitting a preference may result in biased and misleading estimates.

Analyses of the demand for food away from home often employ the theory of household production to motivate models with a consumer's income and demographic characteristics as independent variables (e.g., McCracken and Brandt, 1987; Nayga and Capps, 1994; Byrne, Capps, and Saha, 1998; Stewart and Yen, 2004). Under this theory, the household is viewed as a production unit that gathers various inputs to produce a final product. For instance, a household could acquire and prepare ingredients from a retail store to produce a complete meal, or obtain a complete meal from a foodservice facility. The household could further select among meals served from different types of restaurants or food outlets. Demographic variables like race, age, and education enter the demand model as exogenous variables, representing proxies of a household's ability to convert raw ingredients into complete meals at home, or the utility derived from foods obtained from different food-away-from-home channels.

However, Senauer (2001) argues that "traditional demographic factors may be of limited importance in explaining differences in consumer preferences and behavior" (p. 12). To better model demand, Senauer contends it is necessary to account for the role of information, attitudes, perceptions, and the other complex psychological factors that shape preferences. As to information, researchers have augmented demand models with measures of a consumer's knowledge of health and nutrition. Applications to the demand for away-from-home foods include Blisard, Variyam, and Cromartie (2003). In the current study, we include measures or proxies of consumer preferences. …