When is a Salad Not

David Mendosa Health Guide May 12, 2011
  • Salad is health food. Salad is unhealthy.

    The answer to this riddle is what you call “salad.”

    Salad can be one of the best dishes that people with diabetes eat. It can be low in carbohydrates and provide us with a great variety of green leafy vegetables similar to what our ancestors have eaten for thousands of years. Or it can be loaded with starches and sugars that will boost our blood glucose levels unacceptably high.

    The people who make unhealthy salad choices based on what we call them are precisely those who are trying to eat better. People who are trying to lose weight by eating virtuously are more likely than non-dieters to choose unhealthy foods that we call healthy.

    This is the conclusion of a fascinating study scheduled to appear in the October 2011 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. The abstract of the study, “The Impact of Product Names on Dieters’ and Non-Dieters’ Food Evaluations and Consumption,” is online. The authors of the study, Caglar Irmak, an assitant professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business, and his associates Beth Vallen and Stefanie Rosen Robinson, provided me with the full-text of the forthcoming article.

    They reported how food names misled participants in one of their studies. The meal offered them was a mixture of vegetables, pasta, salami, and cheese, served on a bed of fresh romaine lettuce. If the researchers identified it as “salad,” the participants perceived it as healthy, but when labeled “pasta,” they considered exactly the same meal as unhealthy.

    “Keeping your weight-loss goal in mind as you scan the lunch menu at a cafe, you are careful to avoid pasta selections and instead order from the list of salad options,” they write. “But before you congratulate yourself for making a virtuous selection, you might want to consider whether your choice is a salad in name only.”

    Yesterday evening as I ate a dinner salad I reflected on this study. I was interested to see that they served my smoked salmon salad on a bed of romaine lettuce, just like the participants in the study got. The bed for my salad was uncut leaves, and I suppose the restaurant never expected me to actually eat them (but I did).

    I got healthy ingredients in my salad last night. But if I had made a trip or two to a salad bar, the restaurant would have presented me with a wide array of unhealthy ingredients that dieters might mindlessly add to their salad.

    My scanning of salad bars even in natural food stores turns up many examples that might mislead dieters. They include croutons, beets, raisins, to say nothing of pasta in many forms.

    “What's in a name?” Juliet asked in Shakespeare’s play, “Romeo and Juliet. Her answer shows that four hundred years ago he understood the problem. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

    Sometimes a name tells us too much.