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Stanford psychologists show leading with flavor encourages healthy eating

How dining halls describe vegetables could make a big difference in whether people actually eat them, Stanford researchers report in a new study. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Oct 2 2019

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Faculty, In the News, Students

Most people want to eat healthier, but efforts to encourage healthy eating by providing nutrition information have not changed habits much. A new study suggests that labels emphasizing taste and positive experience could help.

BY NATHAN COLLINS

Eating well isn’t always easy, and the reality is simply telling people which foods to avoid doesn’t do much to get them to eat better. What does work, Stanford psychologists now argue, is highlighting how tasty nutritious food can be. Evocative labels such as “twisted citrus glazed carrots” and “ultimate chargrilled asparagus” can get people to choose and consume more vegetables than they otherwise would – as long as the food is prepared flavorfully.

“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, an assistant professor of psychology and the senior author on the new paper. “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 dining hall experiment

In the past, researchers and policy makers alike figured the best way to encourage people to eat better was to help them figure out which foods were better for them by providing nutrition information like calorie counts, but research has shown that method isn’t all that effective. An alternative approach is to label unhealthy foods as such, but that only goes so far.

“Most strategies to date have focused on getting people to avoid unhealthy foods, in the hope that the promise of health motivates them to eat better,” said Bradley Turnwald, a postdoctoral fellow in Crum’s Mind and Body Lab and the paper’s first author. “The problem is, that doesn’t actually motivate most people to approach healthy foods.”

About three years ago, Crum, Turnwald and Danielle Boles, a graduate student in Crum’s lab, partnered with Stanford Residential & Dining Enterprises to try out a new approach. Culling adjectives from language popular restaurants used to describe less healthy foods, they 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 – hence “twisted citrus glazed carrots.” That study, published in 2017, showed that decadent-sounding labels could get people to eat vegetables more often than they would if the vegetables had neutral or health-focused names.

First Stanford, then the country

The new study, published Oct. 2 in Psychological Science, replicates and extends those findings. Over a period of three months, Crum, Turnwald and colleagues repeated their experiment at five additional university dining halls around the country. In collaboration with the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative (MCURC) – a nationwide network of 57 colleges and universities pioneering research to improve healthy and sustainable eating – the team tracked nearly 140,000 decisions about 71 vegetable dishes that had been labeled with taste-focused, health-focused or neutral names.

Those names mattered. Diners chose to put vegetables on their plates 29 percent more often when they had taste-focused versus health-focused names and 14 percent more often when they had taste-focused versus neutral names. Diners also ate 39 percent more vegetables by weight, according to measurements of what diners served themselves versus how much ended up in compost.

The team discovered two key caveats. First, giving vegetables taste-focused names only worked when those dishes were credibly tasty. At one school where diners thought the vegetable dishes in general weren’t as tasty, labeling them using tasty descriptors had little impact.

A healthy and indulgent mindset

Second, careful word choice matters. Taste-focused labeling works, Crum said, because it increases the expectation of a positive taste experience. In particular, references to ingredients such as “garlic” or “ginger,” preparation methods such as “roasted,” and words that highlight experience such as “sizzlin’” or “tavern style” help convey the dish is not only tasty but also indulgent, comforting or nostalgic. For example, “twisted citrus glazed carrots” works because it highlights the flavor and the positive experience, while “absolutely awesome zucchini” fails because it is too vague.

“This taste-forward approach isn’t a trick,” Crum said. “It’s about leveraging the fundamental insight that our experiences with vegetables and other healthy foods are not objective or fixed but can transformed by changing how they are prepared and how they are described.”

Changing the culture of healthy eating

The new 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. In the long run, Crum, Turnwald and colleagues believe, the combination of research and tools that enable real-world change could have a broad impact on eating habits.

“College students have among the lowest vegetable intake rates of all age groups,” Turnwald said. “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.”

“This research has transformed how we label foods in the dining halls” said Eric Montell, executive director of R&DE Stanford Dining and co-director of the MCURC. “We started using the toolkit at Stanford and replicated it within the MCURC. 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.”

“Beyond college campuses, this research sends a strong signal that it’s time to rethink many existing strategies for shifting mindsets about health,” said Lori Melichar, senior director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated solely to health, and a supporter of the study. “We’re excited to see how this emerging area of exploration supports our efforts to work alongside others to build a national Culture of Health.”