By Lisa Rapaport
(Reuters Health) – People may be more likely to pile vegetables on their plates when these dishes are served up with seductive names like “sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots” than when they’re peddled as health foods, a recent experiment suggests.
For the study, a team of researchers at Stanford University in California experimented with randomly naming identical vegetable dishes in one of four ways: a basic description with plain names, a label stressing a lack of unhealthy components like sugar or fat, a tag identifying positive health properties like lots of vitamins or antioxidants or an indulgent moniker designed to make the dish sound delicious and intriguing like “dynamite chili and tangy lime seasoned beets.”
During weekday lunches in a university cafeteria, researchers watched how many people chose the dishes depending on how the dishes were described and then weighed how much food people put on their plates. Compared with basic labels, indulgent descriptions got 25 percent more people to select the vegetable dishes and also resulted in a 23 percent gain in the total weight of vegetables piled onto plates.
“Our results suggest that emphasizing health in descriptions of healthy foods may not be an effective approach for motivating most diners to choose healthy options, and that a better approach may be to emphasize the indulgent, tasty components of the food,” said lead study author Bradley Turnwald, a psychology researcher at Stanford.
“This means that we may be able to help fight the obesity epidemic and the problematic mindset that healthy foods are not tasty by changing the way that we label and talk about healthy foods,” Turnwald said by email.
Researchers did their experiment at a cafeteria that serves an average of 607 lunches on a typical weekday and ran their experiment over a total 46 days.
During the study period, 8,279 diners, or about 30 percent, selected the vegetable dish. The rest skipped the veggies no matter what they were called.
While the indulgent labels like “slow-roasted caramelized zucchini bites” lured the most diners, basic descriptions that only named the vegetables like zucchini were the second most popular option followed by labels touting positive health benefits, researchers report in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The least appealing choice for diners were dishes with healthy labels describing negative attributes that were missing, like cholesterol or sugar or fat.
One limitation of the study is that researchers didn’t examine how much of the food on their plates people actually ate.
And it’s unclear if people would be drawn to dishes by their labels a second time, noted Dr. Margo Denke, a former researcher at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
“For instance, poorly cooked zucchini bites might be pushed onto the poor consumer once with fun language, but if they taste bad – are undercooked and not flavorful or overcooked and slimy – the consumer will steer clear of this choice on the next go ‘round,” Denke, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.
For many consumers, there’s a perception that healthy food is boring and plain, and exciting labels might get some people to try things they might not otherwise eat, said Vandana Sheth, a private practice dietician and nutritionist in Los Angeles and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“Using descriptive words to highlight the flavor profile as well as positive health benefits can encourage people to enjoy more healthy food options,” Sheth, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “Parents, caregivers, and consumers can certainly use this concept to encourage families to enjoy eating healthfully.”