Can Indulgent Language Make Us Want To Eat Our Vegetables?
Obesity is a major problem in the U.S. and it is more important than ever to find ways to encourage the public to make healthier food choices. Many efforts have been made on that front, yet it’s possible that conventional approaches of advertising the health benefits of healthy foods may not actually be the best way to make these foods seem appealing. After all, many people associate healthiness with blandness and this may turn them away from foods labeled in ways that emphasize nutritional value over taste.
This study looked at whether the labelling of a healthy food changes people’s desire to eat it, especially when that label makes the food sound “flavorful, exciting and indulgent.” The authors conducted the study in a large university cafeteria; each day, one vegetable was randomly labeled in a way that was either basic (e.g. “zucchini), healthy-restrictive (e.g. “Lighter-choice zucchini”), healthy-positive (e.g. “Nutritious green zucchini), or indulgent (e.g. “Slow-roasted caramelized zucchini bites”). The way that vegetables were prepared and served was not changed in any way. Researchers recorded both the total number of people who chose to eat the specially labeled vegetable each day and also the total mass of the vegetable taken that day. Recording was done while making sure that the diners did not notice that they were being observed.
The study concluded that giving health foods an “indulgent” label significantly increased both the number of people who chose to order the vegetable and how much (by mass) that vegetable was ordered overall. By the numbers: labeling vegetables indulgently resulted in 25% more people selecting the vegetable compared to the basic label, 41% more people compared to the healthy-restrictive label, and 35% more people compared to the healthy-positive label. Additionally, labeling vegetables indulgently resulted in a 23% increase in mass of vegetables consumed compared to the basic label, and a 33% increase in mass of vegetables consumed compared to the healthy-restrictive label.
The study also showed a statistically non-significant 16% increase in mass consumed compared with the healthy-positive label. There were no significant differences between the basic, healthy-restrictive, and healthy-positive conditions, meaning changes in diners ordering habits were only found to occur when choosing between a non-indulgent label and an indulgent one.
The results of this study go against trying to use health benefits to advertise healthy foods. Instead, they support the use of creative labeling that entices people. This approach to labeling can be implemented in all kinds of settings, from restaurants to cafeterias, cheaply and easily. Further research may be able to confirm that the same pattern holds in different settings and could also further investigate how labeling can change societal perceptions about the taste of health foods. Advocates for healthy food and advocates of plant-based food – categories which often, but not always, overlap – should consider using this way of talking about and advertising the foods they are trying to encourage people to eat more of.