Updated 21 October 2019

Would evocative labels like 'twisted citrus glazed carrots' get you to eat healthy foods more often?

Efforts to encourage healthy eating are often fruitless, but there may be a different solution. Could taste-focused labels be the 'magic trick'?

Junk food has been scientifically proven irresistible, especially when the cravings hit. And when we’re given the choice between a healthy meal and fast food, the decision can be difficult.

Eating healthy is hard. Figuring out how to do it is stressful and can be a rollercoaster of emotions. But what if eating healthy just depended on how the food was presented?

Would you opt for healthier foods if the labels contained all the nutritional information? Chances are this won’t impact on your eating habits. What about an evocative label like “twisted citrus glazed carrots” or “ultimate chargrilled asparagus”? Well, a new study suggests this might just do the trick.

Emphasising taste and a positive experience can get people to choose and consume more vegetables than they otherwise would, but this means that the food would also have to be prepared flavourfully, researchers at Stanford University found.

The study, published in Psychological Science, 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.

"This is radically different from our current cultural approach to healthy eating which, by focusing on health to the neglect of taste, inadvertently instils the mindset that healthy eating is tasteless and depriving," said Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology and the senior author of the new paper. 

"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?"

A system to name flavoured vegetables

About three years ago, Crum, Brad Turnwald and graduate student Danielle Boles partnered with Stanford Residential & Dining Enterprises to try out a new approach to encourage healthy eating. 

They came up with a system for naming vegetables that focused on the flavours in vegetable dishes along with words that created the expectation of a positive eating experience – hence "twisted citrus glazed carrots".

This was done by culling adjectives from language that popular restaurants used to describe less healthy foods. That study, published in 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.

It’s not just about the label

Crum, Turnwald and colleagues have now extended those findings by repeating the experiment at a number of university dining halls around the United States. Interestingly, they found that giving vegetables taste-focused names only worked when those dishes were indeed delicious.

At one school where diners thought the vegetable dishes in general weren't so tasty, labelling them using tasty descriptors had little impact.

Crum also went on to explain that taste-focused labelling works 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 "sizzling" or "tavern style" help convey the idea that the dish is not only tasty, but also indulgent, comforting or nostalgic. 

For example, "twisted citrus glazed carrots" works because it highlights the flavour, while "absolutely awesome zucchini" fails because it is too vague.

The researchers’ study is part of a larger project with an aim to make healthy foods more crave-worthy, and less like something we tolerate simply because it's good for us. 

Image: iStock

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