Is the Key to Healthy Eating Giving Foods 'Indulgent' Descriptions?

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Photo by: David Neal Hanlon ©David Neal Hanlon

David Neal Hanlon, David Neal Hanlon

There’s a kids’ book by the wonderfully clever British author and illustrator Lauren Child called I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato, in which a boy named Charlie gets his little sister Lola to happily agree to eat vegetables she insists she does not like by giving them exotic names. Lola won’t go near carrots or peas, but she is thrilled to gobble up “orange twiglets from Jupiter” and “green drops from Greenland” that are “incredibly rare.”

A new study indicates that the whimsical story may be more rooted in reality than it may seem — and not only for kids. Researchers in the department of psychology at Stanford University found an association between the use of “indulgent” words to describe vegetables and people’s inclination to eat them.

The researchers suggest that attempts to encourage people to eat healthy foods by highlighting their healthfulness backfire — because people assume healthy foods are not as flavorful. In fact, people may even have higher levels of hunger hormones after eating a meal that is labeled as “healthy.” So the researchers set out to ascertain if people would be more inclined to eat healthy foods, like vegetables, if they were given “the flavorful, exciting, and indulgent descriptors typically reserved for less healthy foods.”

Guess what? When vegetables were labeled using delicious, decadent descriptions (“rich, buttery roasted sweet corn,” “slow-roasted caramelized zucchini bites,” etc.), more people chose to eat them and they ate more of them compared to when they were given “basic” descriptors (“corn,” “zucchini”) or were described in ways that highlighted their healthfulness (“reduced-sodium corn” or “vitamin-rich corn”; “lighter-choice zucchini” or “nutritious green zucchini”).

“Labeling vegetables with indulgent descriptors significantly increased the number of people choosing vegetables and the total mass of vegetables consumed compared with basic or healthy descriptions, despite no changes in vegetable preparation,” the authors concluded, suggesting that restaurants, cafeterias and food purveyors may wish to stop labeling foods as “healthy” and start using zestier terms to promote healthy eating, which could, in turn, reduce obesity.

“Labels really can influence our sensory experience, affecting how tasty and filling we think food will be,” the study’s lead author, Brad Turnwald, told the BBC. “So we wanted to reframe how people view vegetables, using indulgent labels.”

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