There’s a simple way to make healthy food appealing

Highlighting the tastiness of healthy food can help us make better food choices, researchers report.

In a new study, researchers found that evocative labels such as “twisted citrus glazed carrots” and “ultimate chargrilled asparagus” can get people to choose and consume more vegetables than they otherwise would—as long as the food is prepared flavorfully.

“This is radically different from our current cultural approach to healthy eating which, by focusing on health to the neglect of taste, inadvertently instills the mindset that healthy eating is tasteless and depriving,” says senior author Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University.

“And yet in retrospect it’s like, of course, why haven’t we been focusing on making healthy foods more delicious and indulgent all along?”

Motivating better eating

In the past, researchers and policy makers alike figured the best way to encourage people to eat better was to help them figure out which foods were better for them by providing nutrition information like calorie counts, but research has shown that method isn’t all that effective.

An alternative approach is to label unhealthy foods as such, but that only goes so far.

“Most strategies to date have focused on getting people to avoid unhealthy foods, in the hope that the promise of health motivates them to eat better,” says first author Bradley Turnwald, a postdoctoral fellow in Crum’s Mind and Body Lab.

“The problem is, that doesn’t actually motivate most people to approach healthy foods.”

Testing it out in dining halls

About three years ago, Crum, Turnwald, and Danielle Boles, a graduate student in Crum’s lab, partnered with Stanford Residential & Dining Enterprises to try out a new approach. Culling adjectives from language popular restaurants used to describe less healthy foods, they came up with a system for naming vegetables that focused on the flavors in vegetable dishes along with words that created the expectation of a positive eating experience—hence “twisted citrus glazed carrots.”

That study from 2017 showed that decadent-sounding labels could get people to eat vegetables more often than they would if the vegetables had neutral or health-focused names.

The new study, which appears in Psychological Science, replicates and extends those findings. Over a period of three months, Crum, Turnwald, and colleagues repeated their experiment at five additional university dining halls around the country. In collaboration with the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC)—a nationwide network of 57 colleges and universities pioneering research to improve healthy and sustainable eating—the team tracked nearly 140,000 decisions about 71 vegetable dishes that had labels with taste-focused, health-focused, or neutral names.

Those names mattered. Diners chose to put vegetables on their plates 29% more often when they had taste-focused versus health-focused names and 14% more often when they had taste-focused versus neutral names. Diners also ate 39% more vegetables by weight, according to measurements of what diners served themselves versus how much ended up in compost.

The team discovered two key caveats. First, giving vegetables taste-focused names only worked when those dishes were credibly tasty. At one school where diners thought the vegetable dishes in general weren’t as tasty, labeling them using tasty descriptors had little impact.

Healthy foods with indulgent names

Second, careful word choice matters. Taste-focused labeling works, Crum says, because it increases the expectation of a positive taste experience. In particular, references to ingredients such as “garlic” or “ginger,” preparation methods such as “roasted,” and words that highlight experience such as “sizzlin'” or “tavern style” help convey the dish is not only tasty but also indulgent, comforting, or nostalgic.

For example, “twisted citrus glazed carrots” works because it highlights the flavor and the positive experience, while “absolutely awesome zucchini” fails because it is too vague.

“This taste-forward approach isn’t a trick,” Crum says. “It’s about leveraging the fundamental insight that our experiences with vegetables and other healthy foods are not objective or fixed but can transformed by changing how they are prepared and how they are described.”

The new study is part of a broader project to make healthy foods more crave-worthy and less like something we tolerate because they’re good for us. That effort also includes Stanford SPARQ’s “Edgy Veggies” toolkit, a step-by step guide for how to implement taste-focused labeling that draws on Crum and Turnwald’s studies. In the long run, Crum, Turnwald, and colleagues believe, the combination of research and tools that enable real-world change could have a broad impact on eating habits.

“College students have among the lowest vegetable intake rates of all age groups,” Turnwald says. “Students are learning to make food decisions for the first time in the midst of new stresses, environments and food options. It’s a critical window for establishing positive relationships with healthy eating.”

Additional coauthors are from Stanford, Rutgers University, Northeastern University, the University of North Texas, Lebanon Valley College, the University of Southern California, and the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and a National Institutes of Health National Center for Advancing Translational Science Clinical and Translational Science Award funded the research.

Source: Stanford University