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A Big Serving of Food Psychology

A new study involving a six-week experiment in a dining hall at the Stanford University in California found that people are more likely to choose vegetable dishes with exotic descriptions.

The dining hall served up one of eight vegetable dishes during lunch time. The manner in which kitchen staff prepared vegetables did not change but the labels used to describe the dishes did.

Four different descriptions for the dish were used by the researchers in the experiment:

  • A basic description – for example butternut squash
  • A healthy restrictive description – for example butternut squash with no added sugar
  • A healthy positive description – for example anti-oxidant-rich butternut squash
  • An indulgent description – for example, twisted garlic-ginger butternut squash wedges

Researchers recorded how many people selected a specific veggie dish and also weighed how much of the dish was left at the end of lunch in comparison with how much was prepared before lunch began. The majority of people selected the vegetable with the indulgent description. When the healthy restrictive description was used the fewest diners selected the vegetable.

Diners also served themselves bigger portions of the tasty-sounding veggies than of the other choices.

The outcome of the study challenges a technique that aims at promoting healthy nutrition by touting the advantages of certain food and supports previous research that found using creative labeling to promote the consumption of vegetables as effective.

“While it may seem like a good idea to emphasize the healthiness of vegetables, doing so may actually backfire,” said lead author of the study, Bradley Turnwald.

“This novel, low-cost intervention could easily be implemented in cafeterias, restaurants, and consumer products to increase the selection of healthier options.”

Turnwald emphasized that “there was no deception” in the study, referring to all labels accurately describing the vegetables served although people were not told that the different-sounding options were the exact same item.

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