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Names matter: Transforming how we label foods

A study from Stanford researchers finds that food labels that highlight tastiness can improve healthy eating among students at five colleges.

When it comes to food, names matter -- according to a new Stanford-led study recently published in Psychological Science.  

Do the words "steamed green beans" cause your eyes to keep moving down the menu page? Or do you prefer "sizzling Szechuan green beans with toasted garlic"?

People generally prioritize tastiness over health benefits when they choose what to eat. So the researchers investigated whether people can be motivated to eat healthier by highlighting tastiness when naming vegetable dishes.

"Most strategies to date have focused on getting people to avoid unhealthy foods, in the hope that the promise of health motivates them to eat better," said Bradley Turnwald, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Stanford and first author of the paper, in a recent Stanford News story. "The problem is, that doesn't actually motivate most people to approach healthy foods."

Partnering with the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, the research team measured the behavior of undergraduate students in self-serve dining halls at five schools around the country for over three months.

They tracked nearly 140,000 food decisions about 71 vegetable dishes that were labeled with taste-focused, health-focused or neutral names. In a rotating lunch menu, each dining hall served the same vegetable dish on the same day of the week adjacent to the same food choices -- changing only the labels.

Taste-focused labels used words that highlighted specific flavors of the ingredients or preparation methods, along with words that suggested a positive experience through excitement, indulgence, tradition or geographic locations.

Health-focused labels communicated the nutritional qualities and health benefits of vegetables. Basic or neutral labels were nondescript. For example, the taste-focused label of "caramelized balsamic and herb vegetable medley" was changed to the health-focused label of "light n' fit vegetables" or just the basic label of "vegetables."

The study found that taste-focused labels increased diners' vegetable selection by 29 percent compared to health-focused labels, and by 14 percent compared with basic labels.

But did the college students eat the vegetables on their plates? The researchers also investigated this question at one of the schools, where they measured by weight the amount of vegetables the students actually consumed. They found the diners ate 39 percent more vegetables when given taste-focused labels compared to health-focused labels.

Taste-focused labeling is about more than just adding appealing adjectives, however. A supplemental study demonstrated that the name needs to be true and to convey specific positive flavor expectations. For instance, the taste-focused "panko parmesan crusted zucchini" outperformed the vaguely-positive "absolutely awesome zucchini."

"College students have among the lowest vegetable intake rates of all age groups," said Turnwald in the news article. "Students are learning to make food decisions for the first time in the midst of new stresses, environments and food options. It's a critical window for establishing positive relationships with healthy eating."

The researchers also are looking beyond college campuses. In the paper, they suggest that it is time to harness a taste-focused approach to food labeling, nutrition education and cognitive training to overcome the misconception that healthy foods are tasteless and depriving.

Photo by Ewan Munro

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