Does healthy food need a marketing makeover? 'Indulgent' descriptions make people eat more vegetables

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/Lilechka75
© iStock/Lilechka75

Related tags Nutrition

‘Hold the green beans but pass the sweet sizzlin’ ones.’ Using indulgent words to describe vegetables makes people eat more of them – even if there is no difference in the way they are prepared, say Stanford scientists.

How can we make healthy, whole foods just as appealing as more classically indulgent and unhealthy foods? Simply by describing them in the same way, it would seem.

This is the conclusion that researchers at Stanford University reached after conducting an experiment in which an indulgent label increased consumption by one quarter compared to the basic description.

Over the course of 46 days, student diners at a large canteen on campus were offered vegetables divided into one of four categories with corresponding descriptions – basic, healthy restrictive, healthy positive or indulgent.

Green beans, for instance, were labelled simply 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). All were prepared in exactly the same way. 

Diners chose vegetables with indulgent labelling 25% more than basic labelling, 35% more than healthy positive and 41% more than healthy restrictive. In terms of the mass of vegetables served per day, vegetables with indulgent labelling were consumed 16% more than those labelled healthy positive, 23% more than basic and 33% more than healthy restrictive.

“These results challenge existing solutions that aim to promote healthy eating by highlighting health properties or benefits and extend previous research that used other creative labelling strategies, such as using superhero characters, to promote vegetable consumption in children,”​ write the researchers. “This novel, low-cost intervention could easily be implemented in cafeterias, restaurants, and consumer products to increase selection of healthier options.”

Which would you choose?

  • Dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned or beets;
    © iStock/anakopa
  • Rich buttery roasted sweet corn or corn;
  • Sweet sizzlin' green beans and crispy shallots or green beans;
  • Zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes  or sweet potatoes;
  • Twisted garlic-ginger butternut squash wedges or butternut squash;
  • Tangy ginger bok choy and banzai shiitake mushrooms or bok choy and mushrooms;
  • Twisted citrus-glazed carrots or carrots;
  • Slow-roasted caramelized zucchini (courgette) bites or zucchini?

The canteen served around 607 diners (on mean) each day for 46 days, with diners made up of around 52% undergraduate students, 32% graduate students and 15% staff.

Each day research assistants discretely recorded the number of diners selecting the vegetable and weighed the mass of vegetables taken from the serving bowl. Although they did not measure the amount actually eaten, they say people generally eat 92% of self-served food, regardless of portion size and food type.

A fresh makeover for fresh food?

According to Bradley P. Turnwald, researcher at Stanford University’s department of psychology and the study’s lead author, the findings could have an important take home message for food manufacturers.

“Our results suggest that describing healthy foods as delicious and indulgent may lead more people to choose them compared to emphasizing health. For the food industry, this suggests that healthy items may sell better when the labelling gets consumers to focus on the taste and indulgence rather than focusing on health.”

“We speculate that this could make a difference to rising obesity rates over the long-term by changing the culture of how we talk about and portray healthy foods in our society.”

'But the reverse seems to be true in France...'

farmers market vegetables france Credit Meinzahn
A vegetable market in Paris. Credit © iStock/Meinzahn

But do the findings suggest that we have reached a point where fresh, whole, unprocessed food is simply no longer seen as appetising? 

For a majority of Americans at least, this is the case, Turnwald told FoodNavigator - healthy foods are seen as less tasty than unhealthy foods. 

Lab studies in America also show that adding a health label to foods leads people to say that the food tastes worse, is less filling, and less enjoyable compared to when that food is not labeled as healthy.

“Interestingly, this association seems to be reversed in France - [...] the French associate healthy food with being tasty,​” he added, referring to a 2012 study​ which found that French people spontaneously associate unhealthy food with bad taste while healthy food is linked to tastiness.

Source: JAMA Internal Medicine

Research letter, published 12 June 2017

"Association Between Indulgent Descriptions and Vegetable Consumption: Twisted Carrots and Dynamite Beets"

Authors: Bradley P. Turnwald, Danielle Z. Boles, Alia J. Crum

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