Increasing the volume in a restaurant can lead to unhealthy dining choices.

noise level at restaurants
Credit: Food Delight / EyeEm / Getty Images

In recent years, plenty of studies—many of them conducted by Oxford University’s Charles Spence—have surfaced on how sound can affect how food tastes, with loud noises making food taste blander. (Research even suggests that we can attribute bad-tasting airplane food to the loud noise of the cabin—although that's clearly not the whole story.) But beyond affecting how food tastes, can the music in a restaurant also affect what we order? A recent study from the University of South Florida suggests that might be the case… and not in a subliminal message, order the $75 surf-and-turf sort of way.

Instead, researchers found that simply raising or lowering the volume of ambient music in a restaurant led people to order unhealthier or healthier food.

According to the study, billed as the first “to look specifically at how volume dictates healthy vs. non-healthy food choices” and published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Sciences, since volume has been proven to impact heart rate and arousal, softer music’s calming effect makes diners more conscious of what they order, resulting in a healthier meal. On the other hand, louder music increases stimulation and stress which drives unhealthy, comfort food choices.

To prove this theory, researchers used a café in Stockholm, Sweden. Items on the menu were coded as “healthy,” “non-healthy,” and “neutral.” The restaurant then played a loop of various genres of music at alternating volume levels of 55 decibels and 70 decibels. During the experiment, 549 items were sold in total—295 during the softer music and 254 during the louder music—and researchers found that 20 percent more customers ordered something unhealthy when the music was louder. The number of non-healthy items jumped by 10 percentage points during the times of louder music (from 42 percent to 52 percent), while the number of healthy choices dropped 7 percentage points (from 32 percent to 25 percent).

Though this research suggests that restaurant patrons might want to be more mindful of how the setting—and specifically, the music—affects their eating decisions, Dipayan Biswas, the marketing professor at USF’s Muma College of Business who led the study, also suggested a potentially more devious ramification. “Restaurants and supermarkets can use ambient music strategically to influence consumer buying behavior,” he said in a statement announcing the findings. Sounds like a heavy metal doughnut shop could do killer business!