“100% Whole Grain”, “Excellent Source of Vitamins & Minerals”, “Made with Real Fruit”.
Highlighting nutritious foods’ health properties in advertising has become an increasingly popular promotional strategy among food and restaurant brands, fueled by companies’ and governments’ intentions to drive sales of “healthy alternatives” and reduce consumption of foods that have been linked to obesity and other life-threatening illnesses.
Remarkably, the effectiveness of this type of health-focused food labeling has recently been in question, as previously conducted research suggests consumers tend to associate healthier foods – or foods perceived to be healthier – as less tasty. In fact, studies have reported lower levels of hunger hormones after with the consumption of “indulgently” labeled meals (compared with the same meal that is not labeled). Since standard foods are typically labeled with more appealing descriptors than healthy foods, a study published in March in JAMA Internal Medicine investigated whether labeling vegetables with delicious, appealing and indulgent descriptors – usually reserved for less healthy foods – would increase vegetable consumption.
The study was conducted in a large university cafeteria which served 607 dinners per weekday lunch. Every day, one vegetable was promoted with a random label written in 1 of 4 ways: basic, healthy restrictive, healthy positive, or indulgent. The ways in which the vegetables were prepared and served to the diners were not changed throughout the study. Research assistants subtly recorded the number of vegetable consumers each day and measured the mass of the vegetables taken from the serving bowl.
The results indicated that labeling had a significant impact on both the number of vegetable consumers and the mass of consumed vegetables. Data analysis revealed that 25% more people selected vegetables labeled indulgently compared to the vegetable in its basic condition, 41% more people than in the healthy restrictive condition, and 35% more people than in the healthy positive condition. In addition, indulgently labeled vegetables resulted in a 23% increase in the mass of vegetables consumed compared with the basic condition and a 33% increase compared with the healthy restrictive condition, but a non-significant 16% increase compared with the healthy positive condition. No significant differences existed between the basic, healthy restrictive and healthy positive conditions for either the number of vegetable consumers or mass of consumed vegetables.
By challenging the strategies currently in place to promote healthy eating, this study substantiates the need for further research on creative labeling strategies to promote healthy eating in both children and adults alike. The novel and low-cost approach utilized within this study presents a feasible and powerful option that can be implemented in cafeterias, restaurants, and on consumer products to encourage consumers to make healthier food-related decisions.
Written By: Jordyn Posluns, B.Sc. (Hons)