People Will Eat Way More Veggies If They Aren’t Sold As Healthy

The same exact vegetables, described four ways in Stanford University's cafeteria, led to very different results

Who's up for some steam-kissed, lemon-glazed broccoli? — Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Jun 12, 2017 at 3:37 PM ET

With the unwitting help of university students and faculty, Stanford University researchers performed a nifty psychology experiment involving cafeteria food — and it showed that vegetables might need a marketing reboot.

Throughout the fall semester of 2016, the university’s lunch menu prominently displayed a different vegetable item in one of four ways. An item was either given a plain description (“beets”), a healthy, if boring label (“reduced-sodium corn”), a more upbeat but still diet-conscious label (“wholesome bok choy and mushrooms”), and a jazzed-up, Mad Men-inspired moniker (“slow-roasted caramelized zucchini bite”). Regardless of the label, though, the veggies were prepared and served the exact same way each day, the researchers said in a study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine,

All told, around 29 percent of the 27,000 or so cafeteria diners that semester ate the selected veggie. But not only were they more likely to eat it on days when the label was gussied up, they also gobbled up more when they did. Compared to the healthy, restrictive label, which generally performed the worst, for instance, 41 percent more people went for the colorfully-named vegetable, and they packed 33 percent more of it onto their plate.

They weren’t able to directly see how much of the veggie each individual diner actually ate, but most research has found that people nearly always finish their plates.

The findings, according to the researchers, are only the latest to reflect an unfortunate trend of health-aware marketing — we usually avoid those sorts of foods like the plague, presuming they’ll taste horrible and leave us unsatisfied. A 2011 study even found the labels on a milkshake can subconsciously influence our release of hormones that regulate hunger, regardless of how many calories it actually contains.

On the plus side, the study also indicates we may have just been promoting healthy food the wrong way.

“These results challenge existing solutions that aim to promote healthy eating by highlighting health properties or benefits and extend previous research that used other creative labeling strategies, such as using superhero characters, to promote vegetable consumption in children,” the authors wrote.

While they note that such a strategy would take little extra effort to implement in cafeterias, restaurants, and on product labels elsewhere, there should be some considered pause before taking these findings as gospel.

The science of how food-labeling affects our eating choices is in a midst of a full-blown crisis. One of the foremost research centers in the field, the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, has gone under a lot of scrutiny this year for publishing research suspected to be rife with statistical mistakes, inconsistencies, and possibly even ethical violations. And at least one of its studies has been retracted from publication.

None of that heat, it seems, has anything to do with this current study, but it’s an important reminder that no single piece of research should have the final word, at least not without plenty of other research that backs up its conclusions.