“Seductively” Labeling Vegetables Makes People Eat More of Them

What is the difference between “Sizzlin’” green beans and plain old green beans? Nothing, except that you’re probably more likely to scoop the “Sizzlin’” green beans onto your plate. The sexier a vegetable sounds, the greater the chances that people will eat them, a team of researchers at Stanford University found.

Hmm, you may have just found a way to get your kids to eat Brussels sprouts.

A study, published as a research letter on June 12, 2017, in JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at the lunchtime eating habits of close to 28,000 diners at a large university cafeteria. In total, 52.5% were undergraduate students, 32.5% were graduate students, and 15.1% were staff or other diners. The researchers collected data each weekday for the 2016 autumn academic quarter.

Read: 90% of Students Lack Sufficient Intake of Fruits and Vegetables

Food Labels MATTER

Each day’s lunch menu featured a vegetable labeled in 1 of 4 ways: basic, healthy restrictive, healthy positive, or indulgent. None of the veggies were prepared or served any differently; some simply sounded more enticing than others. Some of the names the researchers picked included:

  • Green beans (basic)
  • Light’n’low-carb green beans and shallots (healthy restrictive)
  • Healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots (healthy positive)
  • Sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots (indulgent)
  • Twisted citrus-glazed carrots (indulgent) [1]

As you probably guessed, the vegetables labeled “smart choice” or “sugar free” didn’t fly off the team table at the same speed as the healthy positive and indulgent options.

Each day, research assistants discretely recorded how many people selected the vegetable of the day, and weighed the mass of vegetables taken from each serving bowl. The team had a hunch that more people would select the indulgent-sounding vegetables over those labeled basic or healthy, and they were correct.

Over the course of the study, 29.6% of diners scooped the vegetable of the day onto their plates, and as predicted, sticking an indulgent-sounding moniker on the produce resulted in 25% more people selecting the vegetable than in the basic condition, and 41% more people than in the healthy restrictive condition, and 35% more than in the healthy positive position.

Additionally, labeling vegetables indulgently resulted in a 23% increase in mass of vegetables consumed compared with the healthy restrictive condition, but only an insignificant 16% increase in mass consumed compared with the healthy positive condition, the researchers write. They also said they didn’t find any significant differences among the basic, healthy restrictive, and healthy positive conditions for either outcome.

If your kids are finicky vegetable eaters, you may have already tried a bunch of different creative ways to “trick” them into eating healthy. This might be a good one to add to your arsenal. The team writes:

“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 labeling strategies, such as using superhero characters, to promote vegetable consumption in children.

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.”

Read: 5 Tips to “Trick Yourself” Into Eating Less and Eating Healthier

The researchers point out that this method could be used in cafeterias, restaurants, and consumer products to drive people towards choosing healthier foods. Food producers do it with cereals and other kids’ foods – why not do it with healthful foods like veggies?

In a press release, lead author of the study Bradley Turnwald said:

“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.” [1]

Researchers said more seductive labeling could change the mindset that healthful food is unpalatable.


[1] USA Today

Storable Food

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