“Evocative” Labels Spark Healthier Eating

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Roasted fruits and vegetables on wooden table

Stanford, CA—In spite of the fact that most people want to eat healthier, efforts to encourage healthy eating by providing nutrition information have not drastically changed habits. However, a new study from researchers at Stanford University found that altering the way we talk about food could change habits: Labels just have to talk about healthy food like it tastes good—and then follow through.

Three years ago, the three authors of the paper partnered with Stanford Residential & Dining Enterprises. They came up with a system for naming vegetables that focused on the flavors in vegetable dishes—“twisted citrus glazed carrots,” for instance. They published those findings in 2017, which showed that decadent-sounding labels could get people to eat vegetables more often than they otherwise would. Now, the three have repeated the experiment at university dining halls around the United States.

They found that diners put vegetables on their plates 29% more often when the food had taste-focused, rather than health-focused names, and 14% more often than when it had a neutral name. They also ate 39% more vegetables, measured by how much they served themselves vs. how much ended up in compost.

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However, if the dishes themselves don’t taste good? The labeling doesn’t work.

And the labeling must meet certain requirements, too, notes a press release on the topic. References to ingredients such as garlic or ginger, preparation methods such as roasted, and words that highlight experience such as “sizzling” or “tavern style” convey that the dish is not only tasty, but indulgent, comforting, or nostalgic. “Absolutely awesome zucchini” would therefore fail, as it’s too vague.

Alia Crum, senior author on the paper, said in the release: “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. 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?”

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