Indulgent-Sounding Food Labels Could Make Us Eat More Vegetables

Would you like some zesty garlic-ginger butternut squash? Diana Taliun/Shutterstock

Good food is the core ingredient to many of our lives. And as such, every now and then we like to indulge in a juicy burger with “savory flame-grilled beef” or “thick-cut applewood smoked bacon.” Perhaps we’ll even whet the appetite with a tropical drink named “Hurricane” or “Rum Swizzle”. 

But this begs the question: Is there something lacking in the way we describe vegetables? Would we plop more veggies on the plate if they sounded just as scrumptious?

Scientists from Stanford University decided to put this idea to the test. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, was conducted at the most ravenous place on offer – a university campus. The team labeled the vegetables using four different categories, but made no changes to their actual preparation. Corn, for example, was described as “corn” (basic), “reduced-sodium corn” (healthy restrictive), vitamin-rich corn (healthy positive), and “rich buttery roasted sweet corn” (indulgent). 

The researchers then monitored the number of people who chose vegetables over the course of the academic quarter. The food preparation remained exactly the same throughout that time – only the food labels changed.

Vegetables with indulgent descriptions led students to nosh on the “sizzlin’ green beans” 25 percent more often. The students also spooned 35 percent more veggies onto the plate than in the healthy positive category and 41 percent more than the healthy restrictive.

In total, this resulted in a 23 percent increase in the mass of vegetables served per day compared to basic labeling and 33 percent more than the healthy restrictive. 

“Healthy foods can be indulgent and tasty,” said lead author Bradley Turnwald in a statement. “They just aren’t typically described that way. If people don’t think healthy foods taste good, how can we expect them to make healthy choices?” 

While they only monitored what the university patrons took, not what they ate, the authors wrote that people generally eat 92 percent of self-served food, regardless of food type. 

The authors also suggest that this low-cost intervention could easily be implemented in cafeterias and restaurants to increase the chance consumers select healthier options.  

More than one-third of adults and 17 percent of youth in the US are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

“Changing the way we label healthy foods is one step toward changing the pernicious mindset that healthy eating is depriving and distasteful.”

Someone fork me over some zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes with a side of sizzlin’ green beans and twisted citrus-glazed carrots, please.

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