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Indulgent-sounding descriptions could encourage people to eat more vegetables

Describing healthy foods in terms of their health attributes can discourage diners, according to Stanford researchers.

Consumers are more likely to eat vegetables if they are described as “dynamite,” “caramelized” and “sweet sizzlin’,” according to research from Stanford University scholars.

A study, published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that more vegetables were consumed when they were labelled with indulgent descriptions that are usually reserved for more decadent foods. The findings may help provide guidance on how to make healthier foods more appealing and encourage people to make healthier dining choices.

Obesity

Research conducted by the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) in January 2017 revealed that being overweight or obese has become almost as common as being normal weight among adults in the Nordic region. More than 50% of Nordic men and more than a third of Nordic women are now overweight or obese.

Bradley Turnwald, a graduate psychology student and lead author of the study, said it is not easy to encourage people to eat healthier.

Turnwald collaborated with Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology and principal investigator of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab, and Danielle Boles, one of the lab’s research assistants, on the study.

Turnwald said that previous research has shown that people tend to think that healthy foods are less tasty and less enjoyable than standard foods. Healthy foods are also perceived as less filling and less satisfying, according to prior work. A 2011 study by Crum and her colleagues found that labelling a milkshake as low-calorie and restrictive led participants to have higher levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin, compared to when participants consumed the same shake with a high-calorie and indulgent label.

To test how labelling could impact consumption of healthier menu choices, the researchers collaborated with Stanford Residential & Dining Enterprises to conduct a study in a large dining hall on campus. The researchers changed how certain vegetables were labelled using four categories: basic, healthy restrictive, healthy positive or indulgent.

Green beans, for instance, were described as “green beans” (basic), “light ’n’ low-carb green beans and shallots” (healthy restrictive), “healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots” (healthy positive) or “sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots” (indulgent).

Research assistants monitored the number of diners who chose the vegetable and how much was consumed over the course of each lunch period for an entire academic quarter (46 days). There were no changes to how the food was prepared or presented throughout the study.

The researchers found that labelling vegetables with indulgent descriptions led more diners to choose vegetables and resulted in a greater mass of vegetables served per day. Diners chose vegetables with indulgent labelling 25% more than basic labelling, 35% more than healthy positive and 41 percent more than healthy restrictive. In terms of mass of vegetables served per day, vegetables with indulgent labelling were consumed 16% more than those labelled healthy positive, 23% more than basic and 33 more than healthy restrictive.

Discouraging

Turnwald said: “We have this intuition to describe healthy foods in terms of their health attributes, but this study suggests that emphasising health can actually discourage diners from choosing healthy options.”

This simple and low-cost strategy of altering the descriptions of healthy foods could have a substantial impact on consumption of nutritious foods in dining settings. Turnwald said more research needs to be done – he’d like to see if the effects would be similar when choosing off a restaurant menu, without the food being visible – but these findings could be the basis for a potentially effective strategy to answer a challenging question.

“Healthy foods can be indulgent and tasty,” Turnwald said. “They just aren’t typically described that way. If people don’t think healthy foods taste good, how can we expect them to make healthy choices?”

Crum said: “Changing the way we label healthy foods is one step toward changing the pernicious mindset that healthy eating is depriving and distasteful.”

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