Would you be more likely to eat broccoli, spinach, and other vegetables if they sounded like something indulgent and sense-delighting, rather than something good for you?
That question was the focus of a study published in October 2019 in Psychological Science. Stanford University researchers conducted a series of experiments at five university dining halls across the country, testing whether “taste-focused labels” (such as “Herb n’ Honey Balsamic Glazed Turnips” and “Sizzlin’ Szechuan Green Beans with Toasted Garlic”) increased diners’ vegetable intake compared with “health-focused labels” (“Healthy Turnips,” “Nutritious Green Beans”) or neutral labels (“Turnips,” “Green Beans”).
Taking a page from the junk-food-marketing playbook, the taste-focused labels were designed to provide expectations of a positive eating experience: They used words that suggested excitement, indulgence, tradition, or desirable geographic locations along with specific flavor descriptors.
Across nearly 138,000 diner decisions, 185 days, and 24 vegetable types, the taste-focused labels increased the selection of vegetable dishes by 29 percent compared with health-focused labels, and by 14 percent compared with basic labels. Diners also consumed a larger quantity of the vegetables when the labels were taste-focused, as measured by the amount that ended up in compost, suggesting greater enjoyment. The authors concluded that emphasizing the taste attributes of vegetable dishes—rather than their healthfulness—may make diners more likely to choose them over less-healthy fare.
This isn’t the first study to suggest that what a food is named can influence the likelihood of its being selected. In an earlier study by some of the same researchers, published in 2017, more people chose beets when they were labeled “Dynamite Chili and Tangy Lime-Seasoned Beets” than when they bore either of two healthier-sounding names: “Lighter-Choice Beets with No Added Sugar” or “High-Antioxidant Beets.”
The indulgent name also beat out plain old “beets”—which in turn beat out both of the healthy labels.
Earlier research has also found that the mere belief that a food is good for you can be enough to make you enjoy it less (or at least say that you enjoyed it less). In a study back in 2006, for example, college students rated a mango lassi milkshake as less enjoyable if they were told before consuming it that it was healthy, versus being told that it was “generally considered unhealthy”—even though it was the same shake.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see Health Food? Beware of the Halo Effect.