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We all know the drill by now: the healthiest diets are those with a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats with an emphasis on high fiber, whole grains, and modest portion sizes. Vegetables play a featured role in most healthy diets.
For example, the Harvard School of Public Health’s “Healthy Eating Plate” says that with few exceptions, the more vegetables we eat, the better. (The big exception? Potatoes! They have high carbohydrate content and affect blood sugar in a similar way as sweets, so moderation is recommended.)
And yet for many, vegetables remain low on the dietary priority list. Sure, some people just don’t like them. Perhaps they remember the bland, squishy, unappealing green beans of their elementary school cafeteria. Maybe it’s simply a bias against foods considered healthy. And of course, for many it’s hard to compete with high-calorie, deep-fried, and sweetened options.
Researchers have discovered the answer: Better marketing!
Well, maybe. The study was simple. A large university cafeteria served its usual vegetables (and other foods) in their usual way and researchers tallied how many people chose each vegetable. However, the sign in front of a chosen vegetable was randomly changed in one of four ways:
- “Basic”: The label simply stated the name of the vegetable (e.g., “corn”).
- “Healthy restrictive”: The sign included the name of the vegetable plus something missing that might make it healthier (e.g., “reduced-sodium corn”).
- “Healthy positive”: the vegetable was described as having something extra that might make it healthier (e.g., “vitamin-rich corn”).
- “Indulgent”: the label described the vegetable in a novel or exciting, or, one might argue, “over the top” way (e.g., “rich, buttery roasted sweet corn” or “dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets”).
Here’s what they found:
- Nearly 28,000 diners, about 30% of the total, chose the selected vegetable.
- Labeling mattered — 25% more people chose the featured vegetable when it had the indulgent labeling than when it had the basic labeling. In addition, the amount of the featured vegetable chosen was greater when the more elaborate description was provided.
- Labels touting the healthier aspects of the vegetable (such as vitamin-enriched or sodium-restricted) seemed to have the opposite effect — fewer diners chose these vegetables than when only the name of the vegetable was used.
Surely there’s more to it
It seems a bit simplistic to think that just calling a food something snazzy can make people eat more of it. But marketing experts have been doing this for years, influencing consumer choices by coming up with just the right description, phrase, or jingle. Of course, I’ve never seen ad campaigns promoting “twisted citrus-glazed carrots” or “tangy ginger bok choy and banzai shiitake mushrooms.” Maybe vegetables just need better public relations consultants.
There are some uncertainties in this research. For example, we don’t know from this study whether the effect of labeling vegetables would be long-lasting. It might work for a while and then wear off as diners realize that despite the fancy description, it’s still the same old corn. And people eating at a big university cafeteria might be different from those choosing to eat at a fancy restaurant, a fast food dive, or eating at home. And we don’t know how good these vegetable dishes really were or how accurate the “indulgent” labeling was. So, as usual, we’ll need more research to address these questions.
Still, the findings are promising and suggest that, at least for adults, emphasizing how healthy vegetables are may not be nearly as effective as emphasizing how good they taste. It’s possible that such approaches could reverse the assumption that healthy foods don’t taste good. And more adults eating vegetables could lead to something even more remarkable: kids could start eating their vegetables as well.