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June 12, 2017 – Would you be more likely to eat vegetables if they were described as “dynamite,” “caramelized” and “sweet sizzlin’”?
According to new research from Stanford scholars, the answer is a hearty yes.
The study, published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine, showed that more vegetables were consumed when they were labeled with indulgent descriptions that are usually reserved for more decadent foods. The findings may help provide guidance on how to make healthier foods more appealing and encourage people to make healthier dining choices.
Hurdles to healthy eating
Health officials say people should eat healthier because of a growing obesity problem in the United States. According to a 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, more than one-third of U.S. adults are classified as obese.
So how do you get people to eat healthier? It’s not easy, said Bradley Turnwald, a graduate psychology student and lead author of the study. Turnwald collaborated with Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology and principal investigator of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab, and Danielle Boles, one of the lab’s research assistants, on the study.
Turnwald said that previous research has shown that people tend to think that healthy foods are less tasty and less enjoyable than standard foods. Healthy foods are also perceived as less filling and less satisfying, according to prior work. A 2011 study by Crum and her colleagues found that labeling a milkshake as low-calorie and restrictive led participants to have higher levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, compared to when participants consumed the same shake with a high-calorie and indulgent label.
Eat your vegetables
To test how labeling could impact consumption of healthier menu choices, the researchers collaborated with Stanford Residential & Dining Enterprises to conduct a study in a large dining hall on campus. The researchers changed how certain vegetables were labeled using four categories: basic, healthy restrictive, healthy positive or indulgent.
Green beans, for instance, were described as “green beans” (basic), “light ’n’ low-carb green beans and shallots” (healthy restrictive), “healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots” (healthy positive) or “sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots” (indulgent).
Research assistants monitored the number of diners who chose the vegetable and how much was consumed over the course of each lunch period for an entire academic quarter (46 days). There were no changes to how the food was prepared or presented throughout the study.
The researchers found that labeling vegetables with indulgent descriptions led more diners to choose vegetables and resulted in a greater mass of vegetables served per day. Diners chose vegetables with indulgent labeling 25 percent more than basic labeling, 35 percent more than healthy positive and 41 percent more than healthy restrictive. In terms of mass of vegetables served per day, vegetables with indulgent labeling were consumed 16 percent more than those labeled healthy positive, 23 percent more than basic and 33 more than healthy restrictive.
“We have this intuition to describe healthy foods in terms of their health attributes, but this study suggests that emphasizing health can actually discourage diners from choosing healthy options,” Turnwald said.
A healthier future?
This simple and low-cost strategy of altering the descriptions of healthy foods could have a substantial impact on consumption of nutritious foods in dining settings. Turnwald said more research needs to be done – he’d like to see if the effects would be similar when choosing off a restaurant menu, without the food being visible – but these findings could be the basis for a potentially effective strategy to answer a challenging question.
“Healthy foods can be indulgent and tasty,” Turnwald said. “They just aren’t typically described that way. If people don’t think healthy foods taste good, how can we expect them to make healthy choices?”
Said Crum: “Changing the way we label healthy foods is one step toward changing the pernicious mindset that healthy eating is depriving and distasteful.”
This work was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.