October 22, 2019

Emphasizing flavor boosts vegetable consumption

At a Glance

  • Labels that promoted tastiness increased vegetable selection by 29% and consumption by 39% compared with labels that touted health benefits.
  • Emphasizing the enjoyable aspects of healthy foods may do more to boost consumption than promoting their nutritional qualities.
A woman’s hand holding a bowl of brussel sprouts, with a bowl of cooked broccoli to the left. Researchers have been testing simple ways to encourage people to eat healthier foods. FotografiaBasica / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Everyone knows they should eat more vegetables. Current dietary guidelines recommend filling half your plate with plants at every meal. But according to the CDC, only about 10% of Americans eat the recommended number of vegetables per day.

Many public health campaigns have urged people to eat more vegetables by emphasizing their health benefits. These efforts have had little effect on healthful eating nationwide. Recent studies suggest that emphasizing tastiness may make healthy foods more enticing.

Researchers led by Drs. Bradley Turnwald and Alia Crum from Stanford University tested this idea. They designed food labels for college dining halls that emphasized the tasty flavor of vegetable dishes served. They chose names that promised a broadly positive eating experience, using words linked to excitement, indulgence, tradition, or geographic locations.

The taste-focused labels included names such as “Herb n’ Honey Balsamic Glazed Turnips” and “Sizzlin’ Szechuan Green Beans.” On an equal number of days, the team tested health-focused labels (“Healthy Choice Turnips,” “Nutritious Green Beans”) and basic, non-descriptive labels (“Turnips,” “Green Beans”). The dishes were the same every time. Only the labels changed.

The labels were tested at five universities across the country. The researchers compared differences in the amount of vegetables chosen. At one school, they were also able to weigh the amount of vegetables served and the amount thrown away. The study was funded in part by NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). Results were published on October 2, 2019, in Psychological Science.

Overall, the team was able to compare choices from 71 vegetable dishes served over an average of 37 days per school. This provided a total of about 138,000 individual food-selection decisions.

The taste-focused labels increased selection by 14% compared with a basic label. Emphasizing taste instead of health benefits boosted selection by 29%. The taste-focused labels also increased actual consumption by 39% compared to the health-focused labels.

Follow-up surveys showed that schools that served tastier vegetable dishes on average had the greatest increase in vegetable selection in response to the taste-focused labeling.

The team recruited participants online to further explore perceptions about labels. These participants said they were also much more likely to choose vegetable dishes with names promising a tasty experience than those with names promoting health. The differences in preference were driven solely by taste expectations, not length of the descriptions or other factors.

“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,” Crum says.

The researchers have created an online tool kit to help create taste-focused labels for healthy foods at http://sparqtools.org/edgyveggies.

—by Sharon Reynolds

Related Links

References: Increasing Vegetable Intake by Emphasizing Tasty and Enjoyable Attributes: A Randomized Controlled Multisite Intervention for Taste-Focused Labeling. Turnwald BP, Bertoldo JD, Perry MA, Policastro P, Timmons M, Bosso C, Connors P, Valgenti RT, Pine L, Challamel G, Gardner CD, Crum AJ. Psychol Sci. 2019 Oct 2:956797619872191. doi: 10.1177/0956797619872191. [Epub ahead of print]. PMID: 31577177.

Funding: NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS); Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; National Science Foundation.