Health Communication, Nutrition, Research Findings

An Appetite for Adjectives

How can healthy foods be rebranded to garner interest and uptake, without the use of a master chef? A study this summer looked at the effects of descriptive food labels on the amount of vegetables self-served at lunch. The researchers categorized four different labeling groups:

  1. Basic description (i.e. carrots)
  2. Healthy restrictive (reduced-sodium carrots)
  3. Healthy positive (vitamin-rich carrots)
  4. Indulgent (caramelized carrots)

The vegetables and their recipes remained unchanged regardless of the label type. However, the indulgently labeled vegetables had 25% more people select the vegetable than the basic description, 41% more than in the healthy restrictive, and 35% more than the healthy positive. And when the indulgent label vegetables were selected, the portion size selected was greater than when the vegetable was a basic or healthy positive label.

These findings suggest that how we talk about a food impacts how we interact with it. Once the self-service containers were weighed and paid for, we don’t know how much of that food the individuals ate. Perception seems to play a large role in intent, though, and I am curious to see how health communicators can turn that intent into sustainable action through reframing the perceptions of vegetables and other recommended healthy foods.

  • Casey

    Laurie, I love this! I can definitely see people, myself even, going for items that sound indulgent. A lot of food’s enjoyment is in the presentation, both visual and verbal. I wonder if there’s anyway to highlight both indulgence and health positive aspects, or if populations view that those descriptors as mutually exclusive. This article really gives me something to think about as a future dietitian.

  • Hannah Tuttle

    Laurie, this is a great post! I find it so interesting how altering language can facilitate behavior change. This approach could definitely be used in changing other health behaviors!