Food Psychology 101: Appetizing Food Names = Healthier Dining?

Food Psychology 101: Appetizing Food Names = Healthier Dining?

A large, American-sized serving of food psychology, along with a garnish of trickery, has gotten diners to actually eat vegetables for once (no, really).

Veggies that are given fancier, flashier names – like ‘zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes’, or ‘twisted citrus-glazed carrots’ – were much more popular than the exact same veggies, prepared the same way, but with a duller, more healthful-sounding label.

Food with labels such as “low-fat,” “reduced-sodium” or “sugar-free” were typically followed by ‘no thanks’.

Not only were the fancy-sounding veggies preferred, diners consumed larger portions in the Stanford University experiment conducted in the cafeteria last fall.

“While it may seem like a good idea to emphasize the healthiness of vegetables, doing so may actually backfire,” said lead author Bradley Turnwald, a graduate student in psychology.

Related: How to Get the Most Nutrition Out of Your Veggies

appetizing-food-names-2The idea was simple: people tend to assume healthy-sounding food won’t taste as good, so the researchers tried to make sound as good as a more indulgent, fattening alternative. The Stanford research team tested their theory in hopes to improve eating habits, and make an impact in the growing obesity epidemic.

“This novel, low-cost intervention could easily be implemented in cafeterias, restaurants, and consumer products to increase selection of healthier options,” the researchers said.

The results were published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

In the study, veggie meals were given different names on different days. So one day diners would have the option of “dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets”, while the next could be “lighter-choice beets with no added sugar,” “high antioxidant beets,” or simply “beets”. They were all the same dish.

Related: Is More Expensive – but Healthier – Foods Worth their Price?

Nearly a third of the 28,000 diners in the study chose a veggie option. The appetizing-sounding veggies were the most popular, chosen by roughly 220 diners on average, compared to 175 diners who chose the simple-label veggies. The healthy-sounding labels overall scored the worst, and were the least popular food choice.

Diners also tended to eat larger portions of the tasty-sounding vegetables compared to the other choices.

Dr. Stephen Cook, a University of Rochester childhood obesity researcher, says the study is encouraging, noting some high school cafeterias have tried the different label psychology game to influence healthy eating.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise to us because marketing people have been doing this for years,” Cook said.

Photo credit: Milkos/Bigstock; weyo/Bigstock

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