As America struggles with its obesity epidemic, health advocates continue to seek new ways to convince people to eat more vegetables. But a recent study shows that instead of pushing the healthy aspect of such foods, it might be a better idea to describe veggies with a bit more flair.
In a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers at Stanford University wanted to see if using “indulgent” descriptions usually reserved to describe less healthy foods would increase vegetable consumption.
To test this idea, researchers tracked the weekday lunch dining habits of diners at Stanford for 46 days in 2016.
Every day, one featured vegetable was randomly labeled in one of four ways: basic, healthy restrictive, healthy positive, or indulgent. No matter the label, how the vegetables were prepared and served remained constant.
So on any given day, diners might have seen beets labeled one of four ways, for example: “Dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets” (indulgent); “Beets” (basic); “Lighter-choice beets with no added sugar” (Healthy restrictive); or “High-antioxidant beets” (Healthy positive).
On other days, there might have been “Twisted garlic-ginger butternut squash wedges,” instead of “Butternut squash,” “Wholesome sweet potato superfood Antioxidant-rich butternut squash,” or “Cholesterol-free sweet potatoes Butternut squash with no added sugar.”
Out of the 8,270 diners who opted for vegetables during the study period, researchers found that labeling had a significant effect on both the number of diners selecting the vegetable, and the mass of vegetables consumed.
Comparing indulgent descriptions against each of the other kinds of labeling, researchers found that 25% more people selected the jazzier veggies than the basic ones; 41% more people than in the healthy restrictive labeling style; and 35% more than people in the health positive group.
Giving dishes more exciting names could encourage people to eat more vegetables at a time as well: Researchers found that fun names resulted in a 23% increase in the mass of vegetables consumed compared with basic descriptions, and a 33% increase compared with healthy restrictive labels.
There was only a 16% increase in mass consumed compared with veggies in the healthy positive group, however, which scientists deemed “insignificant.”
Researchers say these results challenge existing solutions that aim to promote healthy eating by highlighting their benefits, and extend previous research that looked at other creative labeling strategies like using superhero characters to convince kids to eat veggies.
“Our results represent a robust, applicable strategy for increasing vegetable consumption in adults: using the same indulgent, exciting, and delicious descriptors as more popular, albeit less healthy, foods,” researchers wrote. “This novel, low-cost intervention could easily be implemented in cafeterias, restaurants, and consumer products to increase selection of healthier options.”