Interesting food descriptions and increase of healthy food intake - connection found in new study

Healthier foods are often perceived as less tasty by majority of the population. This was studied by researchers who tried to see if healthy foods such as vegetables could be made more interesting.

Researchers noted that with rise in obesity numbers many food establishments and labels have focused on making foods sound more interesting and appealing. Just focusing on the health angle of the foods can be counterproductive they say. Most people perceive healthy foods as lacking in taste. Labeling that can catch attention can also raise the hunger hormones the researchers add when compared with blander labeling.

Fresh young sliced beets on table
Image Credit: Africa Studio / Shutterstock

This study tested if labeling vegetables with more interesting, flavorful and exciting describing words could increase their consumption. The study was conducted in a large university cafeteria that served an average of 607 diners per weekday lunch. Of these half (52%) were undergraduate students, one third (32.5%) graduate students and 15.1% were other staff. Information was collected each weekday for 46 days (autumn quarter of 2016). For each of these days, one of the vegetables were featured and labeled in 1 of 4 ways randomly. These were;

  • Basic labels (Beets)
  • Healthy Restrictive labels (Lighter choice beets with no added sugar)
  • Healthy positive labels (High-antioxidant beets)
  • Indulgent labels (Dynamite chillis and tangy lime seasoned beets)

Some of the other interesting labels were Zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes, rich buttery roasted sweet corn, sweet sizzling green beans and crispy shallots etc. The preparations of the dishes remained same despite different labels. Not only were the number of orders recorded, also the amount of the vegetables consumed from the diners’ plates was noted.

Study author Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Mind & Body Lab at Stanford University said that the researchers did not lie to the consumers but create a “sense of indulgence” without changing the food from what it is.

Results showed that during this period, 8279 of 27 933 total diners selected the vegetable studied. This was nearly 30%. Indulgent and interesting labels led to more number of diners selecting a dish and more of the dish being consumed. Interesting labels made 25% more people selecting the vegetable than with the basic label. When compared to healthy restrictive labeling, 41% more people chose an interesting label compared to a healthy restrictive label. Similarly the difference between interesting label and healthy positive label was 35% more orders. Mass intake of the vegetables rose by 23% with indulgent labeling compared with basic labels said researchers. The numbers were 33% higher with indulgent labels compared to healthy restrictive labels.

This unique study showed that interesting food descriptions does have a significant impact on its intake despite no changes in preparation of the food. This could be a step that could be taken to increase intake of healthier foods said researchers. Creative labeling, superhero promotions and other strategies have been adopted in the past to increase vegetable intake among children.

Researchers add that this could be a “low cost intervention” that could be implanted in restaurants, cafeterias and eateries to increase consumer selection of healthier food options. With rise in the obesity epidemic, this could be significant.

The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine, "Association Between Indulgent Descriptions and Vegetable Consumption: Twisted Carrots and Dynamite Beets". The study was funded and supported by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

According to health officials obesity is a growing problem worldwide with the epidemic hitting a maximum high in the last 25 years according to a study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine that looked at populations across 195 countries over last 25 years. Change in food habits and food environment could be the first important step in curbing this menace feel experts. According to a 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, over a third of Americans are obese leading to several health conditions.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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