Candy Really Can Get You to Eat Better

It seems pretty axiomatic that candy bars are more of an indulgence than a healthy snack. We shouldn't look at them as purely tempting enemies of good health, though. In fact, junk food and tastier treats could play a key role in helping us make optimal lifestyle choices.

A Duke University psychologist has just released a study about grocery shelves. This is more interesting than it sounds: Scott Huettel wanted to know how contexts affect food choices, and while the study's sample size (79 participants) was small, the results could change the way you move through a grocery store.

If you're trying to decide between one healthy snack, like grapefruit, and an unhealthy snack, like a Snickers, you're more likely to go with the candy. However, Huettel found that when you add more and more unhealthy options to the mix, shoppers actually become more likely to choose the healthy snack. Part of it may come down to categorial difference: The more unhealthy options you add to the pile, the more the healthy one stands out.

We already know that consumers can make choices for odd reasons, such as narrative branding (i.e., the packaging is cool). But it's possible that grocery stores could encourage better eating with a little counterintuitive social engineering. "Right now, food items are very segregated: Here's the produce, here are the candy bars," said study co-author Nicolette Sullivan in a press release. "If we can change the set of foods people are choosing between, people may make healthier choices. And that could have a profound impact."