Pushing flavor and taste encourages healthier eating choices and helps make vegetables more ‘craveworthy’, study says

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

 ©GettyImages / BartekSzewczyk
©GettyImages / BartekSzewczyk

Related tags Healthy eating Vegetables Foodservice

Emphasizing taste and a ‘positive experience’ on food labels may be more effective at encouraging healthier eating habits than providing nutrition information alone, a new study from the Association for Psychological Science finds.

“Healthy food labels tout health benefits, yet most people prioritize tastiness in the moment of food choice. In a preregistered intervention, we tested whether taste-focused labels compared with health-focused labels increased vegetable intake at five university dining halls throughout the United States,”​ wrote researchers in the study​ published in the journal Psychological Science​.

The study found that descriptive and decadent-sounding labels calling out flavor profiles and taste experience such as “twisted citrus glazed carrots”​ and “ultimate chargrilled asparagus” ​can nudge people to consume more vegetables than they otherwise would.

"This is radically different from our current cultural approach to healthy eating which, by focusing on health to the neglect of taste, inadvertently instills the mindset that healthy eating is tasteless and depriving,"​ said Alia Crum, senior author of the study and an assistant professor of psychology.

"And yet in retrospect it's like, of course, why haven't we been focusing on making healthy foods more delicious and indulgent all along?"

The study is part of a broader project to make healthy foods more crave-worthy and less like something we tolerate because they're good for us. That effort also includes Stanford SPARQ's "Edgy Veggies" toolkit, a step-by step guide for how to implement taste-focused labeling that draws on Crum and Turnwald's studies.

Observing college students’ eating habits

The research was carried out in collaboration with the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, a nationwide network of 57 colleges and universities researching healthy and sustainable eating habits.

"College students have among the lowest vegetable intake rates of all age groups,"​ said study co-author Brad Turnwald.

"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."

Using adjectives and language typically used to describe less healthy food, researchers came up with a system for naming vegetables that focused on the flavors in vegetable dishes along with words that created the expectation of a positive eating experience.

The team tracked 137,482 diner decisions and about 71 vegetable dishes that had been labeled with taste-focused, health-focused, or neutral names. Researchers found that people put vegetables on their plates 29% more often when the food had taste-focused versus health-focused names and 14% more often when it had taste-focused versus neutral names. Diners also ate 39% more vegetables by weight, according to measurements of what they served themselves versus how much ended up in compost.

Researchers found that taste-focused labels outperformed labels that merely contained positive words, fancy words, or lists of ingredients.

In particular, references to ingredients such as garlic of ginger and preparation methods such as "roasted”,​ and words that highlight experience such as "sizzling"​ or "tavern style" ​help convey the dish is not only tasty but also indulgent, comforting, or nostalgic, noted researchers.

Opportunity beyond college campuses

"This research has transformed how we label foods in the dining halls,"​ said Eric Montell, executive director of R&DE Stanford Dining, who commented on the study in a press release issued by Stanford University. 

Beyond college campuses, the research can make an impact on shifting mindsets about healthy eating on a larger scale, added Montell.

"Now there is a great opportunity for university dining programs and other food services across the country to use the scientifically supported toolkit to help advocate for the delicious aspects of healthy foods."

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