12 January - 20 June 2016

Can labelling vegetables with descriptions increase intake?

A research letter by Turnwald et al, published in JAMA Internal Medicine has investigated the effect of healthy labelling of food and how it may be used to encourage people to choice healthier options.

A research letter by Turnwald et al, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, has investigated the effects of healthy labelling of vegetables and how it may be used to encourage people to choose healthier options.

The 46 day long study, involving 607 university students, who ate lunch at a university cafeteria, investigated if labelling vegetables with 1 of 4 descriptions would increase consumption.  Descriptions were classified as basic, healthy restrictive, healthy positive or indulgent.  For each study day, one of the vegetables was featured on the menu.  The vegetables used were beets, sweet potatoes, corn, green beans, butternut squash, zucchini, bok choy and mushrooms, and carrots.  For example sweet potatoes were labelled “sweet potatoes” for basic labelling, “zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes” for indulgent labelling, “cholesterol free sweet potatoes” for healthy restrictive, and “wholesome sweet potato superfood” to demonstrate healthy positive labelling. The researchers only changed the labels of the vegetables and not how the vegetables were prepared.  During lunch the researchers recorded the amount of vegetables served and the number of diners who selected the vegetable.

The scientists report that labelling had a significant effect on both the number of diners selecting the vegetable and the amount of vegetable consumed. During the study 8279 (nearly 30%) of 27 933 total diners selected the vegetable studied. When a vegetable was labelled with indulgent 25% more participants selected the vegetable than when it had a basic label, 41% more people than in the healthy restrictive condition and 35% more people than in the healthy positive condition. The amount of vegetable consumed increased by 23% with indulgent labelling compared with basic and  by 33% compared with the healthy restrictive condition. Turnwald et al. report that there was “no significant differences among the basic, healthy restrictive, and healthy positive conditions for either outcome.”

The researchers state that “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 labelling strategies, such as using superhero characters, to promote vegetable consumption in children.” They note that this could be a “low cost intervention” that could be instigated in restaurants, cafeterias and eateries to increase consumer selection of healthier food options. With the rise in the obesity epidemic, this could be significant.

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