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'Beans' or 'sizzlin' beans:' words get people eating healthier

© iStockphoto / Theodore Scott © iStockphoto / Theodore Scott

(HealthDay News) -- When is a carrot not just a carrot? When it's a "twisted citrus-glazed carrot."

New research shows that when vegetables are described in new and exciting ways, diners tend to choose these healthy foods more often.

One nutritionist wasn't surprised by the finding.

"Ask a dietitian and they will tell you a positive eating experience is one where people are making healthy food choices that they are also excited about," said Heather Seid. She helps manage clinical nutrition at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

"People sometimes consider 'healthy' foods to not be tasty or satisfying," she said. "However, this study found that when the language used for labeling vegetables is changed from 'healthy' terms to those with more 'indulgent' taste descriptions, people are more likely to choose them."

The Stanford University study was led by Bradley Turnwald and conducted in a university cafeteria. Each day, a vegetable was labeled in one of four ways:

Basic. Just the name -- beets, green beans or carrots.

Healthy but restrictive. For example, "lighter-choice beets with no added sugar," "light 'n' low-carb green beans and shallots" or "carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing."

Healthy and positive. Terms like "high-antioxidant beets," "healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots" or "smart-choice vitamin C citrus carrots."

Indulgent. For example, phrases like "dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets," "sweet sizzlin' green beans and crispy shallots" or "twisted citrus-glazed carrots").

Even though the veggies' labeling changed, they were always prepared and served in the same way, the researchers stressed.

However, words had power. The Stanford team reported that "indulgent" labeling led to 25 percent more people choosing a vegetable compared with basic labeling, 41 percent more people than the "healthy restrictive" labeling and 35 percent more people than the "healthy positive" labeling.

Indulgent labeling of vegetables also led to a 23 percent increase in the sheer amount of vegetables consumed compared with basic labeling; a 33 percent increase in consumption compared with the healthy restrictive labeling; and a 16 percent increase compared with the healthy positive labeling.

More studies could help show whether this type of labeling might work beyond the cafeteria setting, and whether the approach can "alleviate the pervasive cultural mindset that healthy foods are not tasty," the team said.

For her part, Seid said "it's exciting to have a study that illustrates people respond positively to small changes in the description of foods."

Dana Angelo White is a registered dietitian and clinical assistant professor at Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Conn. She reviewed the findings and said they "highlight the fact that food is about more than taste and nutrition -- it's about behavior and perception."

"Words like 'healthy' or 'light' or 'no added' are still often associated with uninteresting food," White explained. So, more creative labeling might counter that, she said.

"Taking even the smallest steps to make the experience better may help Americans improve their diets," White said.

The findings were outlined in a research letter published June 13 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

More information

Helpguide.org has more on healthy eating.

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