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. How dining halls describe vegetables could make a big difference in whether people actually eat them, Stanford researchers report in a new study published in Psychological Science.

Culling adjectives from language popular restaurants used to describe less healthy foods, the researchers 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. The first study, conducted with Stanford Residential & Dining Enterprises and 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.

In the new study, the researchers repeated their experiment at five additional university dining halls around the United States over a period of three months. 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.

The researchers found that diners chose to put vegetables on their plates 29% more often when they had taste-focused versus health-focused names and 14% more often when they had taste-focused versus neutral names. Diners also ate 39% 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.

Second, careful word choice matters. Taste-focused labeling works because it increases the expectation of a positive taste experience, according to the researchers. 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,” said senior author Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford. “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.”

Abstract

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