Could Adjectives Help Us Eat Healthier?


As a Ph.D. nutritionist, I would definitely go for some ‘fiber packed vegetables with nutritional miso sauce’ at a conference lunch buffet. Turns out though, most conference goers would not, unless you make one small adjustment. Just rewording the exact same dish to ‘crispy veggie straws with decadent miso dip’ and everything changes, or so says the latest research.

On pack, nutritional labeling generally includes calorie counts, check marks for things like heart health, traffic light coding of red/green/yellow or verbal qualifiers like lite, low or reduced. Importantly, they all emphasize nutritional attributes, not taste. Descriptors for packaged foods are subject to heavy regulations as summed up in what’s known as the CFR 21. It’s an FDA doozy intended to keep food marketers in check and consistent in labeling.

Federal codes aside, in freshly prepared food situations such as universities or hotels, there can be more leeway in describing dishes. This prompted the following question from research psychologists at Stanford University:

It may seem intuitively beneficial to emphasize health attributes so that people can identify healthy choices, but is health-focused labeling of healthy foods capitalizing on the principles of smart food policy?

The question is essentially about whether you lead with health and nutrition...or do you lead with indulgent, mouthwatering decadence to sell more product?

Headed to the Buffet

To answer the question, the researchers looked at eating behaviors in four different settings ranging from university cafeterias to pay-by-the-weight cafes to conference lunch buffets, all in California. The main thing they tracked is change in the number of eaters choosing or not choosing a dish based on the description. The description was either nutrition focused or taste focused.

Here are some of the data showing taste descriptors win every time:

Nutrition Focused Taste Focused Net Change Based on Moving from Nutrition to Taste Language
Fiber packed vegetables with nutritional miso sauce Crispy veggie straws with decadent miso dip 48.7% increase in people choosing the vegetable dish
Light n’ Healthy Salad Indulgent Creations Deluxe Salad 18.3% increase in people choosing the salad
Healthy Choice Vegetable Wrap Mouthwatering Grilled Vegetable Wrap 84.1% increase in people choosing the vegetable wrap

Across all tests, the researchers found that taste-focused labeling increased the selection of healthy foods by an average of 38%. Sprinkle in a few tasty adjectives and eaters want more! And let’s not forget we’re talking about the exact same dish, with no nutritional changes.

Mindset Shifts

This is where the research gets really interesting - ‘not only did more individuals choose these healthy foods with taste-focused labels, but they also experienced those foods as more delicious and indulgent.’

In other words, a new mindset developed where eaters began to positively associate healthiness with tastiness, as opposed to thinking healthy and tasty are mutually exclusive. The finding that a few choice adjectives can shift mindsets towards healthier eating is encouraging. It’s a bit of perception becoming reality on the plate.

It seems the focus on nutrition, macronutrient composition or qualities like phytonutrient density has inadvertently cast eating healthy as something almost prescriptive, like medicine that you have to take. By simply focusing on more culinary, experiential type descriptors, new consumers may be more enticed to give it a try and repeat consumers hopefully experience the food as delicious. It’s that experience part of the equation that keeps them coming back.

Speaking of which, I’m going to pass on that Healthy Baked Tofu for lunch and choose the Oven Roasted Spiced Tofu Steak instead! Yum.