Food

"Healthy" Menu Labels Can Backfire

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Over the last decade or so you've probably noticed nutrition information appearing on restaurant menus. From fast food chains like McDonald's to higher end cafes and bistros, the information is now at your fingertips. Although the detailed signage was meant to educate diners and encourage them to make healthier choices, it's backfiring. When nutritious foods are described in language similar to indulgent menu items, diners are more than happy to dig in.

A Vegetable by Any Other Name Would Taste As Sweet

In the age-old debate between science and art, it seems that researchers are finally picking up on what many chefs have known all along; the more enticing a dish sounds, the more likely people will be to want to eat it. If you're not convinced, try this simple test: Which menu item would you rather eat? A) Chicken sandwich, or B) Herb-marinated, grilled chicken breast served on fresh-baked focaccia with hearts of romaine, sun-ripened heirloom tomato slices, and garlic aioli? No question, right?

Still, science (and market researchers) rely on provable fact, especially when public health is at risk. In a study published by JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers launched a study in a college cafeteria to discover how food descriptions swayed consumers towards or away from healthy choices. Of nearly 28,000 meals served over a month and a half, just over 8,000 included a choice of vegetable.

Although the preparation of the vegetables remained the same throughout the study, each day they were served, the researchers adjusted the labels on the vegetable dishes between basic (ex. "sweet potatoes"), a description that highlighted its health properties ("vitamin-rich sweet potatoes"), or a description detailing its flavor or other characteristic ("zesty baked sweet potato wedges"). Giving the veggie a sexier description triggered 25 percent more people to choose it over the bland name. The gap widened in a choice between the luxurious label and the health-positive "wholesome sweet potato superfood."

And if you ask someone to choose between a veggie with fancy description and a "scolding" title, it was no contest. The decadent-sounding dish was chosen 41 percent over "cholesterol-free sweet potatoes."

"Taste" vs. "Health"

The implications of the study show that simply relabeling healthy food can have a major impact on the choices people make while dining out, even without realizing it. The researchers in the JAMA study aren't the first to realize this phenomenon. For example, when Taco Bell (which has also marketed itself as the spot to go for the "Fourth Meal" of the day) rolled out its "Cantina Menu" nationwide in 2012, it focused its campaign on fresh ingredients, more choices, and value versus the new items' nutritional profiles compared to its traditional menu, leading to an 8.8 percent increase in sales in its U.S. stores that year. The college cafeteria researchers are certainly more concerned with improving consumers' overall health rather than where they satisfy their taco cravings, but at the end of the day, it looks like it's all just a matter of "taste."

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