Could You Be Sabotaging Yourself By Eating Food Labeled “Healthy”?

Does seeing twisted garlic-ginger butternut squash on the menu make your mouth water?

What about slow-roasted caramelized zucchini bites?

Or are you more likely to leap at the chance to try butternut squash with no added sugar?

What about nutritious green zucchini?

The question is, do these names affect how likely we are to try the vegetables?  

In case you haven’t caught on, these are the same two dishes — sweet potatoes and zucchini — fancified with pretty names to get the “foodies” going or to put a healthy spin on the vegetable dish.

Food labeling carrots showing two different namesPin

Let’s take a step back and first ask: how did researchers come to ask this question?

The Backstory

A lot of well-meaning people and organizations are tackling the obesity epidemic by offering healthy food alternatives and clearly labeling them as such.

Low-fat yogurt.

Reduced-sodium beans.

Low-fat, sugar-free…everything.

You’ve seen the packaging. You know what I’m talking about.

And we’re healthier for it…right? Hmmm, maybe not.

What’s the Problem?

A 2006 research study found that people perceived food that they rated as healthy to be less tasty and therefore less desirable to eat (The Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition and Its Effects on Taste Inferences, Enjoyment, and Choice of Food Products, by Rajagopal Raghunathan, Rebecca Walker Naylor, and Wayne D. Hoyer in the Journal of Marketing).

In another study, researchers found that milkshake drinkers who had a mindset of indulgence and were told their milkshakes were higher in calories showed “dramatically steeper decline” in ghrelin, a hunger hormone, after drinking the shake compared to participants who were told their milkshakes were “sensible” and lower in calories. Of course, the milkshakes were the same in calories. Nonetheless, participants with the “indulging mindset” felt fuller, according to the 2011 study, Mind over milkshakes: Mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response by Alia J. Crum, William R. Corbin, Kelly D. Brownell, and Peter Salovey, published in Health Psychology.

Could it be that foods labeled as healthy are causing us to feel hungrier after a meal? Are we sabotaging ourselves by eating foods labeled “healthy”? What a quagmire!

What’s the Solution?

Can we use SCIENCE to figure out whether labeling matters?

Lucky us. The answer is, yes!

A Stanford psychology graduate student Bradley Turnwald, Alia Crum, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, and Danielle Boles, published a paper in 2017 that weighs in (no pun intended) on this issue.

This is part 2 in a series of posts I’m going to share based on a talk I attended in San Francisco with Professor Christopher Gardner.*

RELATED: Check out the post Which Helps You Lose More Weight, Low-Fat Or Low-Carb Diet? about a Prof. Gardner study looking at what kind of diet helps you lose the most weight.

What was the Study about?

This study, Association Between Indulgent Descriptions and Vegetable Consumption: Twisted Carrots and Dynamite Beets, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at whether giving vegetable dishes names that were “flavorful, exciting, and indulgent” (Turnwald et al. 1218), names that you typically give to less healthy foods, would encourage diners to eat more veggies.


The researchers predicted that diners would eat more vegetables if they had creative and indulgent names compared to basic descriptions of vegetables, and perhaps even more than the healthy descriptions of vegetables.

They measured two factors:

  1. how many more people were willing to try the vegetable of the day?
  2. how much more were people piling on their plates?
Food labeling cartoon joke asking for carrotsPin


The study took place at a Stanford cafeteria where they served, on average, 607 diners lunch each weekday. The study ran in the 2016 autumn quarter for 46 days. As such, they were able to get a sizable group; more than approximately 8000 diners tried the vegetables, out of the 27,000 total diners who ate at the cafeteria during the data collection period.

They weren’t all students either. Over half of the diners were undergrads, just under a third were grad students, and approximately last 15% were staff.

What did they do?

The researchers partnered with the Stanford dining hall to cook up one featured vegetable each day. The vegetable would be randomly labeled in 1 or 4 ways:

  1. Basic
  2. Healthy Restrictive
  3. Healthy Positive
  4. Indulgent

For example, you might see a platter of “Green beans” (basic) one day. The next day you might run into “Cholesterol-free sweet potatoes” (healthy restrictive). The day after you might bump into “High-antioxidant beets” (healthy positive). And finally, you might pass by the “Rich buttery roasted sweet corn” (indulgent).

Getting hungry yet?

As you might expect for a well-run study, the vegetables were prepared and served the same way for all four conditions to keep the variables constant.

How did they measure?

Each day, research assistants quietly and discretely “recorded the number of diners selecting the vegetables and weighed the mass of vegetables taken from the serving bowl” (1217).

What were the Results?

The researchers found that the indulgent label had an effect on both the number of people who would give the vegetable of the day a try and that the indulgent label encouraged people to eat more vegetables.

Compared to the basic labeling, 25% more diners opted for the indulgently labeled veggies. Surprisingly, compared to the healthy restrictive, 41% more diners chose indulgently named veggies. Compared to the healthy positive, 35% more people chose the indulgent vegetables.

In other words, the creative and exciting vegetable names got the most people to give the vegetables a try, followed by the basic labels, with the healthy labels coming in last.

So, it appears that giving no-frills names like “corn” and “sweet potatoes” encourage more diners to try the vegetables than healthy-sounding names, like “Vitamin-rich corn” and “Wholesome sweet potatoes superfood.

Are You Surprised by the Findings?

Turns out: words do matter.

I’m not surprised that people would rather eat indulgent-sounding vegetables over plainly named ones. However, I am surprised that the “basic” names beat out the “healthy restrictive” and especially surprised it beat the “healthy positive” food labels, like “healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots” or “nutritious green zucchini”. It makes sense that focusing on something negative like “sugar-free” or “fat-free” emphasizes deprivation. But I’m shocked that the optimistic and glass-half-full approach doesn’t even beat the matter-of-fact “basic” labels.

Perky Jerky packaging example for indulgent labelPin
Smartly labeled packing with healthy positive, healthy restrictive, and most importantly indulgent description “Carefully handcrafted and marinated for tenderness”

What does this all mean?

According to this study (always qualify ? ), cooking the same vegetable recipe and slapping on a fun, creative, exciting, flavorful, mouthwatering, foodie porn, indulgent name with rich descriptions and over-the-top labeling can indeed encourage you to eat your vegetables.

The researchers write that this would be a “novel, low-cost intervention” (1217) that could be introduced into restaurants, cafeterias, and consumer packaging to encourage people to choose healthier options.

To me, it is more evidence that healthy eating and enjoying life is a mental practice, requiring us to learn how to use our brains and mind as allies rather than fleeting forces like willpower or the real enemy, self-inflicted deprivation.

Plus, isn’t it simply more fun to eat “twisted citrus-glazed carrots” than “carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing”.


I love objections. First, the researchers admit that they didn’t measure how much food the diners ate, only how much they put on their plate. A couple of bad apples could be greedily loading up their plates only to dump most of their food down the trash chute. As a rebuttal, the paper cites a different study that showed that people generally eat 92% of the food that they serve themselves.

Second, it could be that vegetables have cultural baggage. Americans don’t cook vegetables in a tasty way (thanks to the British traditions of boiling vegetables until they are a soggy mess) so this study’s finding may not be reproducible in other cultures where vegetables are revered and elevated, such as French and Italian cuisine, or even Chinese cuisine which is near and dear to my heart.

Call to Action

I love that this study emphasizes a finding that is:

  • free to implement
  • takes advantage of mindfulness and the placebo effect to your benefit
  • has no real side effects other than requiring a little creativity, which is always fun.

How can you trick your mind into thinking your zucchini is as rich as a red velvet cupcake?

Products You Buy

Well, I discovered a lot of the store-brand products use “basic” labeling. Maybe Trader Joe’s, Everyday 365, and Kirkland brands don’t have to market so hard because they are store brands. So, they have no-frills labeling. Opting for these store-brand foods is not only slimming for the wallet but can help you avoid the healthy positive or healthy restrictive labeling.

Nutri Grain bars packaging example for indulgent labelPin
Looking around my pantry, I found some weird labels. “More” real fruit? What was in it before?

Recipes You Cook

I went to Pinterest to shop around for a few exaggerated descriptions to share with you. While it is a real hardship to browse through the latest food porn trends, I’ve gathered inspiration to help you indulgently name your dinner tonight.

Indulgent Phrases You Can Use to Make You Drool

Mouthwatering Adjectives

  • Balsamic brown sugar glazed…pork roast
  • Buttery
  • Chunky
  • Creole-flavored
  • Crunchy
  • Dynamite
  • Fall-off-the-bone (e.g. Fall-off-the-bone BBQ ribs)
  • Fluffy
  • Glazed
  • Golden
  • Gooey
  • Homemade
  • Incredible (e.g. Incredible boneless pork roast)
  • Juicy
  • Maple smoked
  • Moist ’n rich
  • Mouthwatering
  • Must-try
  • Out-of-this-world
  • Oven-roasted
  • Peppery
  • Piquant
  • Restaurant-inspired
  • Restaurant-quality
  • Rich & tasty
  • Rich and creamy
  • Roasted
  • Salty
  • Savory
  • Sharp
  • Slow-roasted
  • Sparkling
  • Spiced
  • Spicy
  • Stuffed
  • Succulent
  • Sugary sweet glazed (e.g. Sugary sweet glazed ham)
  • Sweet ‘n Sour
  • Swirled
  • Tangy
  • Tart
  • Tender perfection
  • Triple-stuffed
  • Twisted
  • Ultimate
  • Umami
  • Whipped
  • Zesty

Some of these are not from my imagination. They are real recipes circulating on Pinterest.

Cute Descriptions of Your Food

  • Bites
  • Bowls
  • Spears

What was really surprising was how tough these decadent descriptions were to find. Looking through my feed, I found way more healthy positive and healthy restrictive recipe names than indulgent or basic.

Here are a few that stood out to me:

  • Anti-inflammatory meal plans, gluten free, dairy free
  • Gluten-free, plant-based, vegan, sugar-free easy coconut whipped cream
  • Weight Watchers (not sure why when I read weight watchers I think low fat and dry)
Rolled Oats packaging example for indulgent labelPin
Maybe old-fashioned rolled oats could do with a makeover. How about “old-timey golden-crusted slow-roasted oats with sun-baked strawberries”?

Maybe that’s why it is perennial hard for Americans to lose weight and keep it off. Most of the recipes are advertised as anti or free or something rather than reminding us of why we should savor every bite.

It’s no wonder that people secretly loved to hate-watch Paula Deen. With those two sticks of butter that she added to one of her ice cream sandwich recipes, you could be sure that even if it wasn’t going to be healthy, it sure was going to be gooooood.

I’ll do my part too. In addition to compiling this list of indulgent food names to help you along the way, I’ll make an extra push to give my recipes exciting, creative, and indulgent names. No more “Southwest pork tacos”.

You’ll be enjoying “Pagan-worshipper-themed meat sacrificed twisted corn husk tacos.” Just promise not to cringe too much when you read the indulgent labels.

Additional Reading

*Prof. Christopher Gardner’s talk blew my mind, and I knew it was too useful and funny for me to selfishly keep to myself. All the golden nuggets of wisdom originated from Prof. Gardner. I can’t take credit for any of it except for absorbing and regurgitating the information with some whimsical illustrations and photos. As you go through the information, put your Skeptics Hat on and remember to ask yourself: Is this true? What experience in my life supports this? What negates it? If this is true, then what?

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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