Indulgent food labels get people eating more vegetables

bowl of corn
CC BY 2.0 Whitney

Which would you rather have -- rich buttery roasted sweet corn or reduced-sodium corn?

My mother always said, “Presentation is everything,” when serving a meal. She would insist on transferring our family meals from pots to platters and serving dishes, complete with sprigs of parsley and wedges of tomato, and it never failed to impress.

Curiously, the same advice applies to the naming of food, as researchers have discovered. The way in which a food is described has a significant effect on how many people help themselves to it and how much they eat. In a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that cafeteria food with indulgent names is far more likely to get scooped up by hungry diners than food with ‘healthy’ names. The most interesting part? The food itself never changes!

The study was conducted throughout the fall semester last year at a large U.S. university. Each day, one featured vegetable was labeled randomly in one of four ways: basic, healthy restrictive, healthy positive, or indulgent:

“For example, sweet potatoes were described as either ‘sweet potatoes’ (basic), ‘cholesterol-free sweet potatoes’ (healthy restrictive), ‘wholesome sweet potato superfood’ (healthy positive), or ‘zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes’ (indulgent).” (via Inverse Science)

Researchers counted the number of diners who chose the vegetable and weighed the serving bowl to record the mass eaten. From the study results:

“Labeling vegetables indulgently resulted in 25 percent more people selecting the vegetable than in the basic condition, 41 percent more people than in the healthy restrictive condition, and 35 percent more people than in the healthy positive condition.”

The conclusion? Giving vegetables delicious descriptions will encourage people to eat a lot more than they would otherwise. This is a clever strategy that requires no change in the way food is prepared and no additional cost.

“Our results represent a robust, applicable strategy for increasing vegetable consumption in adults: using the same indulgent, exciting, and delicious descriptors as more popular, albeit less healthy, foods. This novel, low-cost intervention could easily be implemented in cafeterias, restaurants, and consumer products to increase selection of healthier options.”

This study fits in well with my post from earlier this week on World Meat Free Day. Words are powerful (as we writers know!) and, if anyone hopes to influence dietary habits, it’s important to make people feel they’re gaining something, rather than missing out. The indulgent labels do precisely this, whereas the healthy restrictive labels do the opposite. Healthy eating must be defined by what it offers eaters, rather than by what it denies them.

Indulgent food labels get people eating more vegetables
Which would you rather have -- rich buttery roasted sweet corn or reduced-sodium corn?

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