A vegetable’s name can encourage you to eat it

Health messages alone are not enough

With obesity on the increase, many restaurants and fast-food outlets are focusing on health. Ironically, a description or label extolling the health benefits of the food served is often counterproductive. Why?

In our collective subconscious, foods labelled “healthy” are perceived as less tasty and less filling. Conversely, fattier, saltier and/or sweeter foods are more associated with ideas of pleasure and feeling full, and they tend to be described as “indulgent”.

In a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the researchers decided to challenge consumer attitudes. What if foods perceived as very healthy, such as vegetables, were made much sexier and more appealing? The results are unsettling to say the least!

Higher consumption of “superhero” vegetables

The experiment was conducted for 46 days in 2016 in a large cafeteria at Stanford University, where the equivalent of 607 lunches are served to the students per day. One “vegetable of the day” was picked at random each day and given a description with:

  • basic information,
  • restrictive health information (low in…),
  • positive health information (high in…), or
  • an indulgent (attractive) text.

The researchers discreetly evaluated the choice of vegetables at the self-service counter, as well as the portions of vegetables consumed (by measuring what was taken by the cafeteria users). At the end of the study, 29.6% of the meals served (8279 out of 27933) included the “vegetable of the day”. And analysis revealed that the description fundamentally changed people’s behaviour!

An indulgent description of the vegetable led to an increase of 25% in how much it was chosen, compared to a basic description. Compared to restrictive and positive descriptions, the increase was 41% and 35%, respectively. Even better, a vegetable with a “sexier” indulgent description was consumed in significantly larger quantities:

  • 23% more than a basic vegetable,
  • 33% more than a “restrictive” vegetable.

All this was for vegetables prepared in exactly the same way!

Being creative with vegetables works for children too!

The “heroic vegetable” strategy did not come out of nowhere. Back in 2012, a study published by David Morizet in Appetite, as part of a thesis written in partnership with the Louis Bonduelle Foundation, reached the same conclusions.

Among children aged 8 to 11, a preference was noted for a dish called “Special Mix for Super Heroes”, which helped them to get to know and accept certain vegetables that were less popular in the canteen. Names like “Famous Chef’s Vegetables”, “Surprise Vegetables”, “Fresh Garden Vegetables” or “Tasty Vegetables” also resonated better with children.

Once again, proof that if you want to make kids’ mouths water, you have to pour tantalising words into their ears…