People are more likely to select a particular vegetable dish when the food is described in "indulgent" terms, such as "sweet sizzlin'" or "crispy," than when they are sold as the "healthy" option, according to a new study in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Over 46 days, researchers watched how a total of about 28,000 people picked out their food at a Stanford University cafeteria. Each day, the researchers varied the name of a select vegetable dish in one of four ways:
- Basic, which described the vegetable using straightforward words such as "green beans";
- Healthy restrictive, which used words such as "light, low-carb";
- Healthy positive, which used words such as "healthy energy-boosting"; and
- Indulgent, which used words such as "sizzling and crispy.”
The researchers then assessed how many people each day selected the vegetables based on their descriptors and weighed the mass of vegetables the diners purchased.
Overall, the researchers found that roughly 30 percent of the diners—or 8,279 people—opted for the vegetable dish; the remaining 70 percent ignored the vegetables no matter their description.
However, the researchers found that the vegetables with indulgent descriptions were selected by between 25 and 41 percent more diners than those with other labels. In addition, the overall mass for vegetables with indulgent labels was 23 percent higher than those with basic labels and 33 percent higher than those with healthy restrictive labels.
Bradley Turnwald, a psychology researcher at Stanford and lead author on the study, said the findings "suggest that emphasizing health in descriptions of healthy foods may not be an effective approach for motivating most diners to choose healthy options, and that a better approach may be to emphasize the indulgent, tasty components of the food." He added, "This novel, low-cost intervention could easily be implemented in cafeterias, restaurants, and consumer products to increase selection of healthier options."
Joseph Price—an economist at Brigham Young University, who was not involved in the study—said the food labeling strategy would work well in other cafeterias.
However, the researchers acknowledged that the study did not examine the actual quantity of vegetables eaten—only the overall mass of vegetables selected.
Moreover, Andrews Hanks, a behavioral economist at The Ohio State University's Food Innovation Center, said while the findings were encouraging, they focused on what made diners more likely to select a particular vegetable, not necessarily whether more people were selecting vegetables overall. "In other words, are those who already take vegetables simply switching to the vegetable that is being advertised?" he asked (Bakalar, “Well,” New York Times, 7/14; Lou, MedPage Today, 6/12; Rapaport, Reuters, 6/12; Turnwald, et. al, JAMA, 6/12).
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