The Mindset For A Milkshake
The way food is labeled—“indulgent, decadent, and rich” or “healthy, nutritious, and fat- free”—strongly influences our desire to eat it. And those mental cues can even prime the body to metabolize a meal differently. In fact, psychologist Alia Crum found in a 2011 study that volunteers who drank a milkshake with a label highlighting its decadence exhibited different levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin than volunteers who sipped the same shake with a healthier label.
[Seeking a grain of truth in ‘whole grain’ labels.]
Now Crum and her team have investigated the labeling phenomenon with healthy foods, by serving up vegetables with tantalizing names (“rich, buttery roasted sweet corn”) or the same dish with a healthier title (“vitamin-rich corn”). They found that the decadent names resulted in more heaping helpings of veggies on volunteers’ plates. The study, in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, suggests that purveyors of healthy food might want take a cue from the junk food industry—in name only, of course.
Alia Crum is an assistant professor of Psychology at Stanford University in Stanford, California.
IRA FLATOW: Everybody, pick up a menu that’s in your restaurant. I know if you’re driving, you haven’t got the menu close by. And if you ever pick one up, you’re scanning through all the indulgent offerings. Your hunger is piqued when you see this. It’s a sizzling sirloin grilled by the grill master. Mm. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, but then you feel guilty. You don’t want to have that. You cast an eye on the Healthy Choices side of the menu. And there, you spot what seems to be a comparable choice, simply titled 8-Ounce Sirloin Steak. So boring. Doesn’t sound nearly as mouthwatering as the sizzling steak, grilled to perfection by the grill master, which makes you wonder, why do we give the so-called “healthy choices” short shrift when we label them on the menus?
Might a more indulgent name encourage more healthy eating? That is the exact question my next guest set out to study. And the results are out this week in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. Alia Crum is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University in California. Welcome to Science Friday!
ALIA CRUM: Great to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Now, I mentioned steak on our menu. But you set out to study veggies. Is that right?
ALIA CRUM: That’s correct. Well, we first looked at menus in the top dining chains across the US. And we looked at how all of the foods were described and compared the healthy to the unhealthy menu. And we found, as you said, that there was this distasteful inequity in how healthy foods were described. So it was on the healthy menu, it was far less likely to be described with exciting words. Words like “danger,” “crazy,” “spellbinding.” And also words like–
IRA FLATOW: They just use “plain steamed vegetables.” What is that?
ALIA CRUM: Yeah. Who wants that? Low-fat, low-cal.
IRA FLATOW: So what did your research find?
ALIA CRUM: Yeah. So after we did that, we looked down this list, and we thought, these aren’t words that are describing the steak or the actual food that’s being served. There are words like “succulent” and “spellbinding.” Why can’t we just put these words on healthy items? So we decided to do the hardest test of all, and that was to see if we could label vegetables using these indulgent and exciting ways.
IRA FLATOW: What kinds of names did you use to describe them?
ALIA CRUM: For example, with carrots, we said “twisted citrus glazed carrots.” We used “spellbindin” and other words like that. We had “rich, buttery, roasted sweet corn,” “sweet, sizzling green beans,” and “crispy shallots.”
IRA FLATOW: And so did that actually affect the choices they made?
ALIA CRUM: It did. So we did this over the course of 46 days in a large dining hall where about 600 patrons go to eat each day. And we found that, compared to a healthy, depriving label like “reduced-sodium corn” or “carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing,” when we labeled the vegetables indulgent, people chose them 41 percent more regularly.
IRA FLATOW: And it did affect their bodies differently?
ALIA CRUM: We didn’t test that in this study. In the study, we were just looking at whether or not they would choose the vegetable. But in other studies, we have looked at that. So in one study, we gave people a milkshake, but with two very different labels. One that said it was this indulgent, in this case, the perceived calorie content, we said it was indulge and high-calorie. Or we gave them the exact same milkshake, and told them it was a low-calorie, sensable shake. And what we found in that study was people’s bodies, as measured by ghrelin, which is a hunger-regulating hormone, differed depending on what they thought they were consuming. So when they thought they were consuming this indulgent shake, their bodies physiologically responded as if they had had more food.
IRA FLATOW: So that really as mind over matter here.
ALIA CRUM: It is. I think when it comes to healthy eating, we have this very mindless belief that it’s just about calories in, calories out. And what we’re finding, along with a lot of other researchers in this area, Dana Small, who has done some work on the neuroscience of this, is that it’s really not so simple. And in fact, how our bodies and the whole experience of healthy eating is very much influenced by our mindsets, by the context, by the way we’re viewing healthy foods.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. You’re just joining us, I’m talking with Alia Crum, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford, talking about how our mind influences not only our choices that we make, but how our body reacts to those choices. So do you think that if we relabeled the food, then we could get our minds to be better reactive, and then affect our bodies differently?
ALIA CRUM: Yeah. So that’s the goal. For a while, we’ve been trying to motivate people to eat healthy. And our very well-intentioned approach is to tout the healthy benefits of the foods we’re eating– how it’s low-fat or low-calorie or high in nutrients. And we think that this is going to work, but we have this very pernicious mindset that healthy foods aren’t going to be tasty or exciting or indulgent. And so what we’re doing by doing that and also, for example, putting a healthy menu on as an option, is actually reinforcing that mindset.
And so what we are trying to do in this study is not only just trick people to choose the healthy food because it’s really not a trick. It’s to actually change the mindset through which people are viewing healthy eating.
IRA FLATOW: Now, I understand that your own mother actually had a flair for marketing healthy foods to you as a child.
ALIA CRUM: She did. So when I did that milkshake study looking at ghrelin, the hunger hormone, it was really eye-opening to me because I thought, going into it, the healthy mindset would be the best one to have. And what we found was the exact opposite. The best minds to have in terms of feeling satiated after you eat is a mindset of indulgence. And that reminded me about how my mother used to serve me vegetables. So when I would come home after a sports practice or school, she would put V8 in a wine glass with a lemon. And I just thought that was the most exciting thing.
Or she would create cottage cheese faces with cucumbers for eyelashes and a carrot nose. And I didn’t realize until later on that that was not usually the norm. The norm is usually hey, you have to eat your vegetables if you want to have the succulent dessert.
IRA FLATOW: You can’t leave the table. So have the healthy food people caught on to this and maybe now, they will market better labeling in their food?
ALIA CRUM: I think some have, but I think we have a really long way to go, to be honest. We were surprised by just how depriving the healthy menu was labeled in these restaurants. You see it at high-end restaurants, where they’re describing a tomato salad as just the most outrageously rich thing. But in mainstream America, I think we have a long way to go to change the language we’re using to describe healthy foods.
IRA FLATOW: And even in the groceries, in the supermarket, or wherever you buy your veggies. It might be better, maybe, if they had the signage a little better.
ALIA CRUM: Without a doubt. And unhealthy foods have this down. They’re always portraying a sense of variety and excitement. You look at the cereal aisle, and it looks like there’s hundreds of different choices. But if you actually look at the ingredients, it’s basically all the same thing. Whereas if you look in the vegetable aisle, what’s in there is incredible. The amount of nutrients and where this comes from to it’s how it’s grown and the different tastes and the colors. We can do a much, much better job marketing and describing those things.
IRA FLATOW: Get your mother involved!
ALIA CRUM: I’ll see if she’s available.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Dr. Crum, for taking time to be with us today.
ALIA CRUM: Thank you very much.
IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Alia Crum is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University in California.
Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.