Researchers believe they’ve found a way to help us eat more vegetables: Describe them differently.
People are more likely to eat vegetables when they are labelled with decadent, enticing descriptions, say researchers at Stanford, who found in a recently published study that more diners at a university cafe chose to eat vegetables when they had so-called “indulgent” labels. For instance, more diners generally chose to scoop up beets when they were labelled “dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets,” rather than just plain “beets.”
“Healthy foods are marketed and labelled in a way that focuses on health properties,” said Bradley P. Turnwald, the lead author of the study. “Everything else is marketed on taste and indulgent properties.”
Researchers scoured restaurant menus, studying adjectives usually used to describe rich foods such as burgers and pizza. They chose a select few and labelled vegetables the same way: sweet potatoes were “zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes” and green beans became “sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots.” Overall, 25 per cent more diners chose to eat vegetables when they were given the indulgent labels.
What’s more, Turnwald said, his team found that healthy labelling could be a turn-off.
“It seems like a good idea to emphasise the health components of foods because you think that will motivate people to choose that,” he said. “But people aren’t motivated by health when they’re choosing what to eat.”
Rather, “they’re motivated by taste,” he said.
According to the study, when vegetables were labelled “lighter-choice,” “reduced-sodium” or “cholesterol-free,” people were actually less likely to choose them than when they were labelled as plain ol’ beets or corn.
Turnwald said the vegetables were prepared the same way, regardless of labelling.
“We wanted to change the focus,” he said. “The biggest thing we’re fighting from a psychological perspective is that people don’t think that healthy foods taste as good as unhealthy foods. Labelling can impact what we choose and our experience — what we feel and taste.”
What people think of their food also affects how full they feel after they eat, Turnwald said. His co-author Alia J. Crum, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, published a study in 2011 where she had participants drink 380-calorie milkshakes, telling them they were either “indulgent” 620-calorie shakes or “sensible” 120-calorie shakes. Those who thought they were drinking the “indulgent” shake experienced a much larger drop in levels of ghrelin, a hunger hormone, afterward.
“When people thought they were indulging … they were more satiated,” Crum said. This, she added, meant they would be less hungry later.
Crum said people’s mindsets change their actual physiological responses to food.
“When you are thinking healthy (before you eat), your body is assuming you’re consuming less calories because you’re not feeling as satiated,” she said. “The best mindset to have when we are eating is not that it’s healthy or sensible. It’s the mindset that you’re eating something indulgent.”
This, she said, has significant implications when it comes to healthy eating. Touting a food’s health claims probably won’t work, but marketing and describing it as decadent probably will.
“It’s not a trick,” Turnwald added. “Many healthy foods are delicious and indulgent, but we aren’t led to describe them that way, at least not in American culture.”
He and Crum hope that by changing the way healthy food, including vegetables, is seen and described, people will enjoy the experience of eating it more, which will hopefully lead to better nutrition.
“We are trying to change the entire experience of healthy eating, from the taste to the physiology,” Crum said.