Food delivery app Zomato recently introduced a new feature that suggests “healthier options” when customers select food items. For instance it will suggest roti, instead of naan, and if you are hovering over a dessert, it would suggest low calorie options. Considering that Zomato has long been providing options for healthy eating, be it salads, desserts, or vegan food, the new step is not surprising. At the same time, this new feature raises some questions because the question of healthy and unhealthy food choices is not an easy one, for a customer or for the platform. Consider the following:

– Healthy for me = healthy for you? What is healthy for person A is not necessarily healthy for person B. For someone in a sedentary job vs. another whose job entails physical movement, the choices are likely to be different. A person allergic to an ingredient would consider a whole host of items unsuitable.

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– The battle of healthy vs unhealthy foods. A common assumption these days is that a certain class of foods is healthy, whereas most other food is unhealthy. However, traditional wisdom and our own intuition suggests that while there are certain foods or ingredients that are most likely unhealthy (say, MSG), there are many others which are healthy or unhealthy depending on the time of day, other food items in the meal, and so on.

– That’s healthy. But how much? Seemingly healthy choices often hide the myth that quantity does not matter. Research by Peggy Liu (University of Pittsburgh) and colleagues shows that, when making healthy choices, people generally focus on the type of food and give less importance to quantity. Worse, knowing that one is making a healthy choice sometimes unwittingly leads to overcompensation through excess quantity.

– Give me health, then give me guilt. Showing a healthy option when somebody chooses an “unhealthy” dessert loads on the guilt factor at the time of ordering, eating, and even later, for someone who wants to eat the tasty but unhealthy dessert. The fun in the experience goes down, even when at times we do want that guilt-free indulgence.

– Tell me it’s healthy, again. Tell someone that a food item is unhealthy, and chances are they will assume it is tasty, as research by Raj Raghunathan (University of Texas at Austin) and colleagues show. By that token, would healthy imply not tasty?

To actively suggest a replacement as the customer chooses an item implies that Zomato knows what is healthy and what is not, or at least what is healthier. There are other options for what Zomato has attempted, options which could have a stronger factual basis.

Just as for restaurants, one option is to inform customers of calorie count, but a vast body of research on this topic indicates mixed results that are highly context dependent. Another option is to label each dish with a healthiness rating based on specific ingredients, which is quite complicated. A third option is to seek customer ratings of the healthiness of items ordered, but crowdsourcing has its disadvantages.

Focusing on customers’ health is important because healthy eating is a growing trend, especially among the rich and the educated. A platform that doesn’t have healthy options could easily be beaten by a new platform that is positioned as health-focused. After all, you can have the healthy version of any food these days, even healthy mysore pak and kaju katli. For now, Zomato seems to be testing the waters. It’s quite rational to expect that the data amassed in the coming days will enable the platform to optimize this feature.

(The author teaches at the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode)

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