What’s in a Name? “Seductive names” for Vegetables Increases Take Up, US Study Finds

Thursday 15th June 2017

US researchers have found that the names given to vegetables when advertising them has an effect on diners filling up their plates, with names that implied indulgence increasing the sales by a quarter.

The study, which took place on the University of Connecticut campus in Stanford, involved giving a vegetable dish one label out of four every day at the campus’ cafeteria during the autumn term:

  • A basic description (simply the name of the vegetable such as “carrots”),
  • Healthy restrictive (where a vegetable is described as lacking unhealthy ingredients)
  • Health positive (where a vegetable is described with the health bonuses it has),
  • Indulgent (the Marks and Spencer’s esque marketing which emphasises taste, richness and variety).

In order to avoid fatigue the vegetable choice was rotated to ensure there was a lot of variety, with beetroots, carrots, green beans and sweet potato among a large number of veg that was included.

Every day, the research team counted how many of the over six hundred hungry students and staff selected the vegetable dish, as well as weighing how much food was left. After comparing the results over the term, the team found that the indulgent names easily won, outperforming the other labels by at least a quarter.

What was interesting and perhaps underreported by analysis was that health restrictive and health positive names did worse than a simple basic descriptor, which suggests that the advertising of foods as specifically healthy is counter-productive when people make choices about food.

To Brad Turnwald, as well as his team who orchestrated the study and published the results in JAMA Internal Medicine, the answer for why this is can be answered by the motivation for choosing certain foods. Healthy options, Turnwald argues, are seen by people to be less tasty, and given that most people prioritise taste when making a decision on dining, positioning a dining option as healthy can be counter-productive to people who do not choose foods based on health benefits.

He goes on to argue that labels are part of the “sensory experience” of food, and affect how we think it will taste and how filling we will find it. By reframing certain foods by using names that imply indulgence and rich flavour, people were more likely to eat them.

It should be noted that there are caveats to the experiment. A sample of students and academics from a single campus in North America is a fairly small demographic, and it is not clear that expanding this outward would lead to the same staggering increases. As well as this, the experiment concerned cooked meals at a cafeteria, which is different to buying and cooking vegetables at home.

All this aside, the experiment is an interesting look at how the language surrounding the food we eat can make a major difference in the choices we make, and whether nudges in perception, positioning and language surrounding healthy food can be used to help people eat healthier.