What’s in a name? When it comes to getting people, especially college students, to “eat their veggies,” the names of the dishes may be a deal maker or a deal breaker. According to a Journal of the American Medical Association study, the more indulgent the name of the dish, the more likely your college student may, indeed, eat her vegetables.
The observational study involved 27,933 customers passing through a cafeteria at Stanford University in California, choosing lunches over a 46 day period. During that period, 8,279 (about 30 percent) chose to eat vegetables as part of their meal. A majority of the group that ate vegetables were undergraduate students, while about a third was graduate students, and 15 percent were staff and faculty. Among the vegetable choices available on different days during the observational period were: Green beans, butternut squash, corn, beets, zucchini and Bok choy with mushrooms.
The research team spent time each day creating different names for the vegetable dishes to see how different names would impact interest in the dish. The names ranged from a basic simple description, to a name stressing a lack of unhealthy ingredients (sugar free, fat free), to a name that highlighted true health benefits (bursting with antioxidants or vitamin-rich), to a very indulgent name that was designed to make the dish sound irresistible and mouth-watering. A carrot dish on one day was described as “carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing,” while on another day, was “smart-choice vitamin C citrus carrots,” and finally, on yet another day, was described as, “twisted citrus-glazed carrots.” What do you think happened when differently named versions of basically the same dish was served?
The researchers found that giving a vegetable dish a distinctive and creative name like “zesty ginger turmeric sweet potatoes” instead of plain sweet potatoes made 25 percent more people choose it and, on average, they took 23 percent larger portions. Additionally, 35 percent more people chose the vegetables when a term like “zesty” was used, compared to the healthy labeled version (wholesome) of the same dish served on another day. The biggest difference was seen when the dish was described as “cholesterol free” which is a frank, healthy description. In that case, 41 percent more chose the zesty dish compared to the cholesterol-free healthy version. The researchers feel that the results offer a lot of food for thought.
If we’re trying to get consumers, especially young people, to eat more vegetables — because they are nutrient-rich — then just manipulating the name of the dish and adding some tantalizing descriptions may be an easy solution, while advertising the health benefits appears to be counterproductive. Based on the study, it seems better to offer a healthy food but use a descriptive twist to suggest a more decadent offering. This is sham advertising with a positive payoff, and it can nudge reluctant vegetable eaters in the right direction.
Parents, babysitters, restaurants, school and hospital cafeterias can all take a lesson from this research playbook. Mix green beans and shallots but call it “sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots.” Serve seasoned and roasted zucchini chunks but call them “slow-roasted, caramelized zucchini bites.” Both of these menu items did brisk business during the actual study.
Limitations to the study were the fact that the researchers didn’t measure how much of the vegetables were actually consumed when the decadent names inspired people to select them. Researchers also didn’t take note of whether the same decadent description inspired a second purchase after it was eaten the first time. The decadent name might nudge a person to select it, but if once chosen they decide it’s “just plain old vegetables with a fancy name” then they won’t choose it again.
Nutrition experts suggest that really healthy people will choose to eat loads of vegetables no matter what the name of the dish is. The research suggests that for the disinterested, an especially exciting and decadent name will likely garner interest from those less likely to eat veggies. It obviously helps if the marinades or seasonings make the vegetable dish live up to its name — and that’s the big challenge. The vegetables need to taste as good as their name sounds. Given that teens in particular tend to skip fruits and vegetables when offered, this might be a good way to approach this age group.
Here are some other ways to get all age groups excited about eating vegetables:
- Use different cooking methods, including steaming with herbs, sautéing with healthy oils and flavor enhancements like garlic, and stir frying with different condiments.
- Use interesting presentations like grilling on shish kebob sticks.
- Offer healthy dips like hummus or salsas to jazz up a vegetable plate.
- Use roasted tomatoes or marinated peppers to enhance the flavors of undressed salads or roasted vegetables.
- Involve the reluctant vegetable eater in taste tests, recipe finds, and the actual preparation of the dish.