Do Healthy Labels Actually Discourage Healthy Food Purchases?


Changing the way you see vegetables could be in the way you name them.

In a recent study from Stanford University researchers, people were more likely to eat healthier foods if they were labeled with more “indulgent” titles. The study said that promoting healthy foods could actually cause people to avoid them more.

Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cary Smith/Released

“In response to increasing rates of obesity, many dining establishments have focused on promoting the health properties and benefits of nutritious foods to encourage people to choose healthier options,” the researchers wrote. “Ironically however, health-focused labeling of food may be counter-effective, as people rate foods that they perceive to be healthier as less tasty.”

The study took place within a large university cafeteria, where an average of 607 diners attended weekday lunches. Everyday, the cafeteria featured a vegetable that was randomly labeled in four different ways: basic, healthy restrictive, healthy positive or indulgent.

Labels for green beans varied, with the basic label as “green beans,” the healthy restrictive label as “light ‘n’ low-carb green beans and shallots,” the healthy positive label as “healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots” and the indulgent label listed as “sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots.”

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The vegetables weren’t changed in any other way. Research assistants then recorded the number of diners who chose the vegetable option and weighed how many vegetables were taken.

The indulgent labels were 25 percent more popular than the basic labels, 41 percent more popular than the healthy restrictive labels, and 35 percent more popular than the healthy positive labels. There weren’t any significant changes among the basic, healthy restrictive and healthy positive labels, the researchers said.

“These results challenge existing solutions that aim to promote healthy eating by highlighting health properties or benefits and extend previous research that used other creative labeling strategies, such as using superhero characters, to promote vegetable consumption in children,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers were not able to measure how much food the individual patrons ate, but the researchers said that people generally eat 92 percent of self-served food, regardless of the portion size or food type.

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“Our results represent a robust, applicable strategy for increasing vegetable consumption in adults: using the same indulgent, exciting, and delicious descriptors as more popular, albeit less healthy, foods,” the researchers wrote. “This novel, low-cost intervention could easily be implemented in cafeterias, restaurants, and consumer products to increase selection of healthier options.”

Since the diners went with options that were labeled as “twisted citrus-glazed” and “sizzlin’ beans” over “smart-choice” or “sugar-free,” the researchers said better labeling could change the mindset, and the plates, of diners. Bradley Turnwald, the study’s lead author, said promoting healthy options in a healthy way is counterintuitive.

“We have this intuition to describe healthy foods in terms of their health attributes, but this study suggests that emphasizing health can actually discourage diners from choosing healthy options,” Turnwald said to USA Today.

The article was published as a research letter in JAMA Internal Medicine.