Sweet sizzlin' beans! Fancy names may boost healthy dining

Jane Richards
June 13, 2017

Out of the nearly 28,000 diners, over 8,000 chose a vegetable dish across the experiment's duration.

Bradley P. Turnwald, M.S., and coauthors from Stanford University in California, tested whether using indulgent descriptive words and phrases typically used to describe less healthy foods would increase vegetable consumption because some perceive healthier foods as less tasty, according to a research letter published by JAMA Internal Medicine.

The researchers attempted to find out how to make healthy food more appealing as one way to combat the obesity crisis. According to a 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics, more than one-third of US adults are classified as obese.

Despite the changes in labeling, the vegetables were prepared exactly the same say each day.

The total amount of vegetables served per day came to 16% more for indulgent labeling compared to healthy positive, 23% more than basic, and 33% more than healthy restrictive.

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Indulgent labeling of vegetables 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, according to the results.

"It's this mindset that eating healthy is depriving and distasteful and this is just one step toward shifting that towards really giving healthy and nutritious food the credit they deserve", she said.

In experiment conducted at a Stanford University cafeteria that serves about 607 lunches on weekdays, researchers found that diners opt for the fancy-named food items over those with labels such as "reduced-sodium", "low-fat", and "sugar-free". Green beans, for instance, got a basic label (green beans) a healthy restrictive label (light "n" low-carb green beans and shallots), a healthy positive label (healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots), and an indulgent label (sweet sizzlin' green beans and crispy shallots). Researchers found that people are more likely to add vegetables in their plates when these are served with seductive names than when they are promoted as healthy food. "If people don't think healthy foods taste good, how can we expect them to make healthy choices?" But we can just slightly change the language so that these words could create a sense of indulgence without altering what the food actually is.

The tasty-sounding offering was the most popular, selected by about 220 diners on average on days it was offered, compared with about 175 diners who chose the simple-label vegetable. More research needs to be done-researchers want to know if the effects would be similar when choosing off a restaurant menu, without the food being visible-but the findings could be the basis for a potentially effective strategy to answer a challenging question.

"We have this intuition to describe healthy foods in terms of their health attributes, but this study suggests that emphasizing health can actually discourage diners from choosing healthy options", Turnwald says. Perhaps a relatively painless and cheap tweak to menu descriptions could prompt people to make healthier choices.

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