Would Carrots by Any Other Name Taste as Sweet? Study Suggests Not

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College students would rather eat “slow-roasted caramelized zucchini bites” than just plain “zucchini,” even when both dishes are prepared exactly the same way.

Researchers watched 27,933 customers over 46 days in a college cafeteria, of whom 8,279 selected vegetables. Most of the diners were undergraduates, but about a third were graduate students and 15 percent were staff members. On different days, they could choose beets, corn, green beans, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, zucchini, carrots, or bok choy with mushrooms. The study is in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Each day, the experimenters varied the names of the dishes to create a different gustatory impression. The basic “carrots” served one day became the healthful but somewhat stern “carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing” the next, then mutated into the still health-conscious but more friendly “smart-choice vitamin C citrus carrots,” and finally achieved metamorphosis as the restaurant-menu worthy “twisted citrus-glazed carrots.”

Giving a sweet potato dish a name like “zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes” instead of just plain “sweet potatoes” resulted in 25 percent more people choosing the vegetable. But 35 percent more customers chose the zesty label than the health-positive “wholesome sweet potato superfood,” and 41 percent more chose it than the scolding “cholesterol-free sweet potatoes.”

“This is a seemingly simple study, just relabeling food,” said the senior author, Alia J. Crum, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford. “But it reflects a larger issue — that we’re trying to get people to eat healthier, but we’re going about it all wrong by trying to make people eat healthy by touting health claims.”

Evidently, telling college students to eat “healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots” or “vitamin-rich corn” has exactly the opposite of its intended effect. If you want a college kid to eat his veggies, it’s much better to call them “sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots” or “rich buttery roasted sweet corn.”