Labelling vegetables with indulgent descriptions usually used to describe fatty foods may help promote healthy eating, Stanford scientists say.
The study showed that more vegetables were consumed when they were described with words such as "dynamite," "caramelised" or "sweet sizzlin'".
The findings may help provide guidance on how to make healthier foods more appealing and encourage people to make healthier dining choices.
Previous research has shown that people tend to think that healthy foods are less tasty and less enjoyable than standard foods. Healthy foods are also perceived as less filling and less satisfying, according to prior work.
To test how labelling could impact consumption of healthier menu choices, the researchers from Stanford University in the US conducted a study in a large dining hall.
They changed how certain vegetables were labelled using four categories: basic, healthy restrictive, healthy positive or indulgent.
Green beans, for instance, were described as "green beans" (basic), "light 'n' low-carb green beans and shallots" (healthy restrictive), "healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots" (healthy positive) or "sweet sizzlin' green beans and crispy shallots" (indulgent).
Research assistants monitored the number of diners who chose the vegetable and how much was consumed over the course of each lunch period for an entire academic quarter (46 days).
There were no changes to how the food was prepared or presented throughout the study.
The study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found that labelling vegetables with indulgent descriptions led more diners to choose vegetables and resulted in a greater mass of vegetables served per day.
Diners chose vegetables with indulgent labelling 25 per cent more than basic labelling, 35 per cent more than healthy positive and 41 per cent more than healthy restrictive.
In terms of mass of vegetables served per day, vegetables with indulgent labelling were consumed 16 per cent more than those labelled healthy positive, 23 per cent more than basic and 33 per cent more than healthy restrictive.
"We have this intuition to describe healthy foods in terms of their health attributes, but this study suggests that emphasising health can actually discourage diners from choosing healthy options," said Bradley Turnwald, a graduate psychology student at Stanford.
This simple and low-cost strategy of altering the descriptions of healthy foods could have a substantial impact on consumption of nutritious foods in dining settings.
Turnwald said more research needs to be done to see if the effects would be similar when choosing off a restaurant menu, without the food being visible.
However, these findings could be the basis for a potentially effective strategy to answer a challenging question, researchers said.