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Healthy Food Is More Appealing If It Sounds Unhealthy

A carrot by any other name…

Nick Rose

Nick Rose

Photo via Flickr user Honey Tee

Ask any chef, and there are plenty of ways to get people to eat more vegetables. You can deep fry them and slather them in a sweet, sticky sauce; hit them with some sneaky, hyper-umami MSG; or, you can just give them rad names like "twisted citrus-glazed carrots" or "sweet sizzlin' green beans and crispy shallots."

We already know that similar techniques work with wine labels, but now, according to researchers from Stanford, it seems that "indulgent" food labeling can indeed make vegetables more enticing to consumers.

In a study entitled "Association Between Indulgent Descriptions and Vegetable Consumption: Twisted Carrots and Dynamite Beets," authors wanted to figure out if they could make healthy foods as appealing as "classically indulgent and unhealthy foods" by playing with their labelling.

Building on an existing body of research suggesting that health-focused labeling is perceived as less tasty and associated with higher hunger hormone levels after eating, Ph.D. student Brad Turnwald and his colleagues decided to see if they could increase vegetable consumption with "flavorful, exciting, and indulgent descriptors typically reserved for less healthy foods."

READ MORE: How Fancy Wine Labels Brainwash You

Turns out, they could. By hijacking the labelling at a university cafeteria, Turnwald and his team were able to name the vegetable in four different ways. Those descriptors ranged from "basic" (beets, green beans, or carrots) to "healthy restrictive" ("lighter-choice beets with no added sugar," or "carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing") to healthy positive ("healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots" or "smart-choice vitamin C citrus carrots") to "indulgent" ("dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets," "sweet sizzlin' green beans and crispy shallots" or "twisted citrus-glazed carrots.")

Over the course of a semester, they measured the consumption habits of 27,933 diners—and their results are a testament to the power of cool names.

Indulgent labeling of vegetables resulted in a 23 percent increase in the mass of vegetables consumed compared with basic labeling, and a 33 percent increase in the mass of vegetables consumed compared with the healthy restrictive labeling. Indulgent labeling also resulted in 25 percent more people selecting the vegetable compared with basic labeling, 41 percent more people than the healthy restrictive labeling, and 35 percent more people than the healthy positive labeling.

"Our study showed that applying flavorful, exciting descriptions usually used for decadent foods—to vegetables—resulted in a 25 percent increase in vegetable consumption," Turnwald told MUNCHIES. "While it may seem like a good idea to emphasize the healthiness of vegetables, doing so may actually backfire because it reflects and reinforces the pernicious cultural mindset that healthy foods are depriving and distasteful."

These results could also have important implications far beyond the college cafeteria, he says. "This novel, low-cost, non-deceptive intervention could easily be implemented in cafeterias, restaurants, and consumer products to motivate and improve the experience of healthy eating."

In other words, it would appear that people, or, at the very least, college students, are more likely to eat vegetables that have a Guy Fieri-tinged moniker like "sweet sizzlin' green beans and crispy shallots." Many wish to hitch a ride to Flavortown, indeed.