Every time I stroll through the cereal aisle at the grocery store I hear a familiar tune in my head: “Hearts, stars, and horseshoes, clovers and blue moons, unicorns, rainbows, and tasty red balloons!” It’s catchy, sure, but a new study published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that the breakfast Leprechaun is also using a clever marketing strategy to convince you to add a box of cereal to your cart. When it comes to selecting what we buy and what we pass by, researchers found that healthy food labels with marketing driven by taste rather than healthiness wins over the consumer.
To reach this conclusion, academics from Stanford University partnered with Menus of Change University Research Collaborative—a network of U.S. universities dedicated to promoting healthy and sustainable eating for college students—to study how labeling foods influences decision-making in the cafeteria.
After tracking 140,000 decisions made about 71 vegetable dishes either labeled with taste-focused, health-focused, or neutral labels, researchers found that the taste reigned supreme. In fact, cafeteria-goers put veggies on their plates 29 percent more often when the labeling focused on flavor than when it stressed the health of the vegetable. With more research, the Stanford team also learned that vegetables sold as delectable had to actually follow through on that promise. Otherwise, students abandoned the healthy foods on their plates.
“This is radically different from our current cultural approach to healthy eating.” —Alia Crum, PhD
Alia Crum, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and the senior author on the paper, says that this “tasty red ballon!”-style labeling works so well because the eater expects a positive taste experience. Buzzwords like “roasted,””sizzling,” “garlic-y,” or “tavern-style” connote both taste and nostalgia. Not for sugary breakfast cereal, but for moments in the past when forkfuls of veggies that were downright flavorful.
Crum’s discovery could truly be a breakthrough for the future of getting nutritious foods into the carts and mouths of consumers. “This is radically different from our current cultural approach to healthy eating which, by focusing on health to the neglect of taste, inadvertently instills the mindset that healthy eating is tasteless and depriving,” said Dr. Crum.
Soon, the label on your zucchini noodles just might read: “zesty zoodles.”
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Still confused about how to read a food label? Same. Here’s a breakdown. Plus, the biggest mistakes people make when purchasing “healthy” foods.