It’s true that some unhealthy ingredients make foods tasty. Nonetheless, the belief that the opposite is also true — that healthfulness makes something less tasty — arises from a bias that we can detect in experiments. Merely framing food as healthy — emphasizing its health benefits — leads people to see it as less tasty.
We see this framing effect emerge at an early age. In one study, we read stories to 3- to 5-year-old children about a girl who ate crackers to become stronger or ate carrots to become smarter. Another group of children of the same age listened to a similar story with no mention of the foods’ health benefits. Everyone was later offered the foods in the story. We found that when kids expected that crackers would make them stronger or that carrots would make them smarter, they ate fewer crackers and carrots than the group of children to whom we presented no such claims. The food that we offered was identical, but because children believe healthy food isn’t tasty, when we presented health claims, they left more of the snack on the plate.
The belief that food that’s healthy can’t be tasty stays with you as you grow up. In another study, we presented two identical bags of baby carrots to adults on our university campus. We asked some people to choose the healthier-looking bag and asked others to choose the tastier-looking bag. Next, we invited them all to eat the carrots in their selected bag. We observed that people who had selected carrots for health hardly touched them, but people who had selected carrots for taste enthusiastically consumed them — even though, again, these were identical carrots. Merely focusing on the fact that carrots are a healthy snack makes them less appealing than if we focus on how they’re crunchy, sweet, and a little earthy.
The healthy food myth is not inevitable — we absorb it through our culture. When millions of Americans gather to watch the Super Bowl next month, they’ll be bombarded with ads for food and beverage brands like Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Doritos, and Pizza Hut. In fact, the biggest advertisers at most sporting events are so-called junk food companies. These ads teach us that fun equals consuming unhealthy food. And this message permeates popular culture.
Research finds that the food and drinks that celebrities post about on their social media feeds are primarily unhealthy. Hollywood movies, too, show unhealthy foods on-screen significantly more often than healthy foods. When a character does encounter healthy foods, they often say “yuck” or “gross.” And America’s most popular restaurants use less tasty and exciting language on their menus to describe healthy options versus unhealthy ones. According to a recent analysis, a description of a healthy entree is much more likely to include the words “simple,” “nutritional,” and “fit” than “house-made,” “crunchy,” or “fun.”
All these daily rituals and interactions reinforce the idea that food is either healthy or tasty. And also that food that serves both goals — call it feeding two birds with one scone — is rare.
But this is a mistake. If we realize the cognitive bias, we can correct for it and, ultimately, eat more of the food that’s good for us. The trick is to shift the focus from the nutrients to the flavor of healthy food. Makers of unhealthy food have emphasized flavor for decades, but two can play this game.
In one study, in cafeterias in several US colleges, we got more people to choose vegetable dishes when we posted signs that emphasized their flavor instead of signs that reminded people that vegetables are good for them. On some days, we used labels that emphasized health benefits such as “Healthy Choice Turnips,” “Nutritious Green Beans,” and “Vitamin-Packed Carrots.” On other days, these same foods were labeled “Herb ’n’ Honey Balsamic Glazed Turnips,” “Sizzlin’ Szechuan Green Beans With Toasted Garlic,” and “Citrus-Glazed Carrots.” The healthy labels decreased consumption by almost 30 percent compared with food labels that emphasized taste, suggesting that merely thinking of healthy food as tasty is enough to increase consumption.
For people eating at home, we recommend focusing on the taste of healthy food. Talk about the flavors of the good-for-you dishes that you like, and prepare those foods so they’re tempting and truly delicious. That’s how we destroy the myths about healthy food.
Ayelet Fishbach is a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, and the author of “Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From the Science of Motivation.” Bradley Turnwald is a principal researcher in behavioral science at the Booth School.