The secret to getting people to eat healthier isn’t by providing nutritional information, but clever advertising that emphasizes taste and experience, according to a study.
While American produce has upped its efforts in recent years with packaging laying out nutritional facts to inform consumers on what they’re about to eat, a study by Stanford University researchers found that the way to get people to eat healthier foods is more like a sales pitch than a disclaimer — by tempting consumers, rather than informing.
“This is radically different from our current cultural approach to healthy eating which, by focusing on the health to the neglect of taste, inadvertently instills the mindset that healthy eating is tasteless and depriving,” Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology and the senior author, said in a statement. “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 study, published in Psychological Science by the Association for Psychological Science, started three years ago when researchers collaborated with the Menus of Change University Research Collaborative, which involved a collection of nearly 60 colleges and universities. Researchers tallied around 140,000 decisions from more than 70 vegetable dishes that were labeled with either a focus on taste, health, or had neutral names.
With the experiment aimed at college students, researchers found that consumers took a bigger bite at options that were taste-focused compared to other options. Vegetables that were taste-focused were taken on plates 29% more than food that was health focused. Taste-focused meals also performed 14% better than those with neutral names.
What’s behind the decision process to consume food advertised by taste? Crum said it’s because consumers create a higher expectation for a positive taste experience, specifically ingredients like “garlic” or “ginger” while cooking methods like “roasted” and kitchen buzzwords like “sizzlin” or “tavern style” evoked consumers’ tastebuds while also striking a comfort cord.
“This taste-forward approach isn’t a trick,” said Crum. “It’s about leveraging the fundamental insight that our experiences with vegetables and other healthy foods are not objective or fixed but can transform by changing how they are prepared and how they are described.”
Some think this type of flavor-focused approach could provoke healthier lifestyle choices beyond the study groups.
“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.