Researchers from six U.S. universities and colleges found consumers ate vegetables 29% more often when they had labels based on their taste than when they were labeled based on health attributes. The taste-focused labels also got consumers eating their vegetables 14% more often than with basic labels. The study was conducted across 137,842 diner decisions during 185 days and using 24 types of vegetables at five university dining halls. It was published in the journal Psychological Science.
Researchers said while labels on healthy foods advertise their health benefits, most people prioritize taste when choosing what to eat. More people ate tastier sounding vegetable recipes, outperforming labels with positive or fancy words or ingredient lists.
"Together, these studies show that emphasizing tasty and enjoyable attributes increases vegetable intake in real-world settings in which vegetables compete with less healthy options," the study concluded.
The results of this study could influence food manufacturers to emphasize taste and a "positive experience" on product labels — rather than nutritional information — in order to encourage healthier eating habits. Such an approach would dramatically differ from the common practice of focusing on health attributes and ignoring taste, according to Alia Crum, senior study author and an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University.
Crum said in a Stanford release that touting health over taste "inadvertently instills the mindset that healthy eating is tasteless and depriving. And yet in retrospect it's like, of course, why haven't we been focusing on making healthy foods more delicious and indulgent all along?"
The common practice has been to provide nutritional information to encourage consumers to eat more healthfully, so products typically note calories, vitamins and minerals and other healthful ingredients.
In a 2017 study, Crum and other professors and graduate students joined with Stanford Residential & Dining Enterprises on developing a new dish labeling method. They adopted adjectives from restaurant menus for less healthy foods and started applying them to vegetables. The new names focused on flavor and created the expectation of a positive experience, for example, "twisted citrus glazed carrots."
The earlier Stanford study found that more indulgent-sounding descriptions resulted in more vegetables being consumed than if they were labeled with healthy names or neutral ones — despite no differences in how the vegetables were prepared.
According to a study earlier this year from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, consumers rank taste over price. Because taste is king for most consumers, some food makers are tracking flavor aspects of their products through the supply chain to make sure this important factor remains front and center.
"No matter how sustainable it is, or how it is accessed, taste is the first criteria," Riccardo Accolla, director of digital food science for the Ripe.io blockchain platform, told Food Dive earlier this year. "If it doesn’t taste well, a consumer is not going to buy it again, a producer does not want to produce it again."
Despite these results consumers also do want as much as information as possible on food and beverage labels, even if they don't always read it or understand what it means. Transparency is a strong motivating factor and can influence shoppers to choose one product over another. A 2018 report from Label Insight and the Food Marketing Institute showed 75% of shoppers will switch to a brand that provides more in-depth product information.
The best strategy may lie in marketing healthy foods in a way that emphasizes taste and flavor so consumers will give them a chance. Otherwise, people may remain stuck in the attitude that "healthy" means "less tasty."
Touting better flavor or other less tangible, tough-to-prove assets on food labels is tricky business, though, so brands need to make sure they're complying with Food and Drug Administration labeling rules as they try to enhance consumer appeal.