Campaigns to get people to eat more vegetables could use a healthy dose of seduction, according to a new study featured by the BBC. “Indulgent” descriptions convinced more people to load up on vegetables than when the same dish was described in a bland or more health-conscious way, a semester-long study of a Stanford University dining hall found.
Published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the study analyzed dining choices at a Stanford cafeteria for 46 weekdays. During that time period, almost 8300 of more than 27,900 diners chose one of the vegetable dishes under scrutiny by psychologists.
The featured vegetables in the dining hall were the same throughout the study, but labeled randomly in four different ways. They either had a basic name (“corn”), a healthy name with a positive spin (“vitamin-rich corn”), a healthy name with a restrictive spin (“reduced-sodium corn”), or an indulgent name (“rich buttery roasted sweet corn”). Research assistants surreptitiously noted how many diners chose the vegetables each day, and weighed the serving bowls to determine how much of the food was taken.
At the end of the semester, the researchers found that “indulgent” descriptions were more convincing than basic names or health-focused monikers. People wanted to eat “slow-roasted caramelized zucchini bites,” not “lighter-choice zucchini.” (Can you blame them?)
The indulgent labels convinced 25 percent more people to grab a plate than the basic labels. The healthy labels weren’t nearly as effective—41 percent more diners chose indulgent veggies compared to the healthy-restrictive or healthy-positive labels. People also took greater quantities of the indulgently labeled veggies compared to any of the other conditions (though the difference wasn’t enough to be significant in the healthy-positive condition).
The researchers write that the results “represent a robust, applicable strategy for increasing vegetable consumption in adults: using the same indulgent, exciting, and delicious descriptors as more popular, albeit less healthy, foods.” In other words: If you want people to do what’s best for them, don’t tell them it’s healthy; tell them it’s delicious.