Unless you can clearly see calorie counts and other nutritional information on the page, don't take your menu at face value.

By Zee Krstic
February 28, 2019
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Credit: JGI/Jamie Grill/GettyImages

More often than not, diners can tell a lot about a restaurant just by looking at the menu: Are there vegetarian or vegan options? What about a section for those with gluten intolerances? Now, new research shows that we may need to spend more time reading in between the lines of a menu in order to understand how healthy the food being served is. A joint team of researchers from Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University have published a new study in the May 2019 issue of the Journal of Business Research that suggests diners are more likely to believe their meals are healthy if the menu appears to be handwritten (or at least features a typeface that makes it seem so).

In this study, researchers established that menus that are or appear to be handwritten significantly impact our perceptions of the establishment. In fact, what the menu looks like also plays a part in whether or not you post photos of your meal on your social media account. Stephanie Liu, PhD, the study's lead author, told the Huffington Post that more people have become interested in "clean eating" and enjoying lighter meals, which means restaurants are looking for ways to attract these customers specifically. "Many restaurants are branding or rebranding themselves as healthy, but they might not know how to do it effectively," Liu said. "We wanted to help these restaurants by offering a creative marketing strategy that does not necessarily increase cost-you just need to print your menu in a different font that appears handwritten."

The study involved upwards of 185 participants between the ages of 20 and 84, who were split up into four groups to see if "handwritten" menus could better convey a curated, organic experience. The study's participants were asked to imagine they were visiting a fictional restaurant called "Rilo's Kitchen" before being subjected to tests. Both groups were told that the faux establishment was focused on serving healthy food-and researchers told them that the menu included locally-grown, non-GMO, antibiotic-free ingredients. They also said that the restaurant was committed to being sustainable in both cooking and operations.

One group was handed a menu that was made with a specially designed handwritten typography, whereas the other group received a regular printed menu. Researchers immediately discovered those with a handwritten menu reacted better to the offerings, noting that they seemed healthier, and ended up being more likely to post on social media later on in the experience. But the study notes that these results only occurred when the restaurant was first described as "healthy." The menu's design didn't have any effect on the two groups that weren't told that Rilo's was "healthy" in the first place. "At regular restaurants or with fast food, the typeface doesn't matter as much because you're not expecting that human touch or extra effort," Liu told MarketWatch.

While it seems that some diners may be mistaking curated menus for a guaranteed health halo, some experts told Huffington Post that restaurants have to do a lot more than design a menu to actually attract customers. "The entire messaging in restaurants has become much more transparent about how ingredients are sourced, how the food is prepared, even calorie counts," said Douglas Riccardi, a board member of the Type Directors Club and owner of a New York branding agency, Memo Productions. "People are just more open now and there's less of a desire to hide things under the rug."

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