The prevalence of consuming food prepared out of home, including takeaway stores, fast food chains, and restaurants, has increased globally due to busier lifestyles and demand for convenience [1
]. Almost 50% of global respondents to a market research survey eat away from home at least once a week [3
]. In Australia since the late 1980s, the proportion of total food expenditure on foods prepared outside of home has increased from 25% to 34% [4
]. However, frequent consumption of takeaway food has been reported to be associated with poorer diet quality, namely, high levels of energy, total fat and sodium intake, and higher prevalence of obesity [2
The physical, economic, political, and socio-cultural context in which consumers engage with the food system to make their decisions about acquiring, preparing, and consuming food is known as the food environment [8
]. The existing food environment is being disrupted by the emergence of online food delivery (OFD) platforms, which have recorded a doubling in usage from 2018 to 2020 [9
]. OFD platforms have been defined as “websites or smartphone applications set up for customers to select from food outlets’ menu items to order food prepared away from the home for pick up or delivery by freelance couriers” [10
]. Almost 30% of younger generations (15-to-34 years) use these OFD platforms and have recently been identified as their main users [11
]. Food prepared outside of home has recently been reported to be most consumed by young people compared to other age groups [12
]. Young people have also been reported to spend just under $
AUD 2000 per year on these foods [4
Concerns have been raised about the nutritional quality of meals offered by OFD platforms. A recent cross-sectional observational study conducted by Partridge et al. in Sydney and Auckland, characterised 680 popular food outlets and their five to ten most popular menu items from UberEats®
, the market-leading OFD platform in Australia [10
]. They found 86% of popular menu items were discretionary foods and beverages (also known as junk food), which are defined as items high in added salt, saturated fat, sugar and low in fibre by the Australian Dietary Guidelines [10
]. Previous studies have described the nutritional composition of meals from takeaway franchises (chain stores that prepare and sell meals/snacks ready for immediate consumption, offered in specialised packaging, e.g., McDonalds®
, or KFC®
) that are subject to menu labelling [14
]. However, independent takeaways (takeaway outlets that are not franchises, e.g., local kebab shop) [16
], are not subject to this regulation and were reported to be the second largest (30%) food outlet type on OFD platforms after takeaway franchises [10
]. Only a few studies have explored the nutritional quality of food items provided by independent outlets [5
], highlighting a research gap exists for this food outlet classification. The collation of independent restaurants on a single platform provides a unique opportunity for efficient evaluation of the nutritional quality of menus from multiple independent takeaways.
OFD platforms have also revolutionised the way we purchase food prepared out of home by capitalising on smartphone technology and subsequently expanding our food choices beyond local food outlets [18
]. The platforms allow users to order food, view enticing food images, and access other customers’ reviews with an unprecedented ease [19
]. A recent Australian study reported price, value for money food items, and appealing food images to heavily influence young people’s preference to eat food prepared outside of home [20
Marketing tactics that position foods to be first viewed and default popular choices may encourage their selection. Within an online grocery store context, options placed on the “first-screen” appear to be more commonly selected [21
]. Such strategies are akin to the positioning of food items on supermarket shelves at eye-level and at check-out counters [22
]. The position of an item within a physical menu and the use of popularity cues such as “Most Popular” have also been reported to sway consumer choice [23
]. Popularity cues serve as an indicator of product demand and/or interest by other consumers [24
Nutritional labelling at point-of-sale may also serve as a form of marketing to encourage choice, or in this case to guide consumers to healthier choices [25
]. A study conducted at a New Zealand university also reported use of symbols on menus to label healthy foods influenced food selection [28
The use of marketing techniques within the unique digital food environment of OFD platforms and the association with nutritional quality of menus offered warrants further investigation.
Thus, this study’s primary aim was to evaluate the nutritional quality of complete menus from popular independent takeaways available on a market-leading OFD platform in areas with high proportions of young consumers (15–34-years) in Australia. The secondary aim was to investigate the associations between the nutritional quality and marketing attributes of these menus, including a popularity cue, image use, prices, offerings as value bundles, nutritional information, and dietary labelling.
To our knowledge, this study is the first to evaluate the nutritional quality of complete menus offered by popular independent takeaways on an Australian market-leading OFD platform and examine the association between their nutritional quality and marketing attributes. Discretionary food and beverages made up the majority of menus and were more likely to be most popular, accompanied by an image and offered as a value bundle than FFG menu items. Nutritional and dietary labelling was also largely absent from our sample. Discretionary mixed meals (cereal-based and vegetable-based) were more expensive than their FFG counterparts. Our findings suggest the menus from independent takeaways are dominated by menu items of poor nutritional quality and these menu items appear to be associated with greater use of marketing attributes.
Most menu items offered by popular independent takeaways were discretionary. Similar to our finding, Jaworowska et al. examined 489 commonly consumed meals from small, independent takeaway establishments and found they contributed a large proportion of daily energy and salt intake [17
]. Recently, Goffe et al. also reported 79% of 149 takeaway food outlets available on the market-leading OFD platform in England, obtained a health rating score of 2 or less out of a maximum of 5 using a novel outlet-level health metric [34
]. Our study also identified the majority of most popular menu items to be discretionary. This affirms Partridge et al.’s finding that 84.3% of most popular menu items were discretionary on the same OFD platform [10
]. It is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic may have increased the ordering of unhealthy choices on OFD platforms. A recent observational study in 38 countries reported COVID-19 stay at home policies and COVID-19 induced psychological distress were associated with less preparing and selecting of healthier foods in adults [35
]. This is highlighted as UBER reported that compared to the previous year, delivery bookings grew 113% in the second quarter of 2020 and revenue grew 103% in August 2020 [36
]. More than half of the most popular menu items were discretionary cereal-based mixed meal dishes such as pizzas and burgers. This finding aligns with a recent cross-sectional study across three international cities, including Melbourne, Australia, which studied outlets on OFD platforms located in different socio-demographic areas. They found that in all three cities, burgers and pizza were the most common predefined keywords used to advertise meals [37
]. Thus, the discretionary cereal-based mixed meal dishes may be the most popular menu item of independent takeaways as they are amongst the most visible meals on OFD platforms. However, further research is required to confirm that popularity cues influence OFD users to purchase unhealthy choices. A recurring limitation of prior research was analysis of only the most commonly purchased or consumed menu items available from the food outlets investigated [10
]. By demonstrating that the poor nutritional quality seen in most popular menu items from popular independent takeaways extends to their complete menus, our findings support that in addition to franchise stores, independent outlets should also be included in current public health nutrition discussions.
Discretionary menu items were more likely to be offered as value bundles and accompanied by an image than FFG menu items. A 2017 study in the US reported consumers were more likely to purchase meal deals when presented with the option than when no option was available [38
]. This is a public health concern as value bundles add excessive amounts of deleterious nutrients to already nutritionally poor foods [39
]. More recently a study focusing on young people living in Australia also reported increased purchasing intention for menu items that suggested value for money such as meal deals [20
]. This same study also reported images to be strong persuaders of consumer choice [20
]. Leading OFD platforms themselves have also reported the use of appealing food images to boost sales [40
]. The value of images is reaffirmed by our finding that images appeared significantly more with the most popular menu items than with regular items. Contrary to our findings, a 2020 experimental study in the US found no effect of pictures on influencing purchase intention or spending on a fictious screen, simulating an OFD platform [42
]. However, this study was limited to a single menu item, a chicken sandwich, which is not representative of the unhealthier choices found on OFD platforms. The style of image used in this study was also very different to that utilised by UberEats which has specific guidelines for use of images by food outlet partners [41
]. The use of imagery to market poor nutritional quality food has also been noted on other digital platforms, with a recent study reporting 67% of food images seen by adolescents on social media were of discretionary items [44
]. Further research on how images influence the purchasing decisions of a variety of unhealthy choices within OFD platform environments is warranted. Menu labelling has also been reported effective in guiding consumers towards lower caloric options when consuming food prepared out of home [25
] yet we identified only 0.2% of menu items offered nutritional information. Despite not analysing consumption data, the absence of nutritional labelling, and the greater proportion of discretionary menu items accompanied by marketing attributes, suggests OFD platforms may be unconducive to positive dietary choices.
Unlike other marketing attributes, the effect of price on consumer choice behaviour has been explored within the specific context of OFD platforms. Schulz et al. reported consumers’ exploratory behaviour when selecting a food outlet on a major OFD platform was affected by the outlet’s average price compared to others within the same cuisine [45
]. The relationship between price and nutritional quality however on OFD platforms has not been explored. A 2011 study conducted in New Zealand evaluating the availability of healthy choices from 24 fast food stores reported that healthier menu items were cheaper than regular options [14
]. Our study reported similar results where menu items from two of the three FFG mixed-meal categories were less expensive than their comparable discretionary category. This contrasts with the common perception that healthy choices are more expensive than unhealthy choices, which act as a barrier for young people to select healthier options [20
]. Whilst a statistical significance was noted between the lower prices of healthier options than their discretionary counterparts, it is unknown if a price difference of $
2 would impact purchasing intention. As taste has been identified as a factor that influences food choices when eating out [20
], palatability may be more influential than price. The discretionary meat or alternative-based mixed meal category, which was the second largest discretionary category among the menu items, was cheaper than the FFG counterpart. It is plausible that the FFG meat or alternative-based mixed meals were more expensive as premium, leaner cuts of meat tend to be more expensive than fatty cuts. Ultimately, further research is required to investigate price differences between comparable menu items of opposing nutritional quality on OFD platforms and if this influences consumer choice both independently and in consideration of other platform-related marketing attributes.
A key strength of this study is the investigation of the largest sample size of complete menus from independent takeways. To our knowledge, only Partridge et al. and Jaworowska et al. have evaluated the nutritional quality of menu items from independent takeaways although were limited to popular menu items only [17
]. We also employed a comprehensive classification system of 38 food and beverage categories before assigning menu items as discretionary or FFG. This system better defined the offerings from independent takeaways to enhance the understanding of their contribution to the current food environment. Previous research examining the relationship of nutritional quality and food marketing within the digital food environment has focused on online grocery shopping [21
]. To our knowledge this is the first study to link the nutritional quality and food marketing attributes for food prepared outside the home within the unique digital environment of OFD platforms. While Partridge et al. [10
] demonstrated how OFD platforms increase accessibility to discretionary menu items, this study is one of the first to demonstrate how OFD platforms may also be encouraging the choice of discretionary items over healthier options through marketing tactics.
However, our findings cannot be generalised to all independent takeaways as we only assessed the most popular independent outlets identified by the preceding study [10
]. We also examined the market-leading OFD platform, however there are others with widespread usage in Australia e.g., Menulog and Deliveroo. Thus, we may have excluded popular outlets exclusive to other OFD platforms and their marketing attributes. As we used web scraping for data extraction, we were limited to the marketing attributes available through the web browser interface and not the mobile application interface. We also could not examine promotions and purchase incentives which are only visible on users’ personal accounts. Our findings were interpreted with the assumption that Most Popular referred to items with the greatest sales, however the algorithm used to determine this characteristic is not made publicly available. We also did not examine usage data, thus the associations between nutritional quality and marketing attributes should be interpreted with caution as the findings cannot infer causality.