How do you get more people to eat their greens? Give vegetables seductive names, say US researchers.
A team at Stanford tried it out on students in the university cafeteria and found veggie sales went up by 25% when indulgent labels were used.
"Sizzlin' beans", "dynamite beets" and "twisted citrus-glazed carrots" tempted diners to fill their plates.
Healthy labels, such as "wholesome", were a turn-off, even though the dishes were identical in every other way.
The experiment took place over the whole of the autumn academic term. Each day, a vegetable dish was labelled up in one of four ways:
- basic - where the description was simply "carrots", for example
- healthy restrictive - "carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing"
- health positive - "smart-choice vitamin C citrus carrots"
- indulgent - "twisted citrus-glazed carrots"
The choice of vegetable - beetroot, butternut squash, carrot, corn, courgette, green beans, sweet potato - was also rotated to make sure there was enough variety throughout the week.
Each day, the scientists counted how many of the 600 or so diners selected the vegetable dish and, at the end of the meal time, weighed how much of the food had been taken from the serving bowl.
The indulgent labels came out top and included "twisted garlic-ginger butternut squash wedges" and "dynamite chilli and tangy lime-seasoned beets".
Seductive names resulted in 25% more people selecting the vegetable compared with basic labelling, 41% more people than the healthy restrictive labelling and 35% more people than the healthy positive labelling.
The researchers, Brad Turnwald and colleagues, say the findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, make sense when you consider the psychology behind food choices.
"When most people are making a dining decision, they are motivated by taste.
"And studies show that people tend to think of healthier options as less tasty for some reason.
"Labels really can influence our sensory experience, affecting how tasty and filling we think food will be.
"So we wanted to reframe how people view vegetables, using indulgent labels."
Although most of us know that we should eat plenty of veg, too few of us do it.
People are advised to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. Roughly a quarter of UK adults actually achieve this, however.
Prof Heather Hartwell from Bournemouth University in the UK has been leading a European project, VeggieEAT, designed to get people eating more veg.
She says no one strategy works for all, but there are lots of ways to boost intake.
Veg by stealth
For some, selecting healthy food is a considered and conscious choice.
But Prof Hartwell is also an advocate of "health by stealth" - nudging people in the right direction.
"Nudges can work. We have looked at using choice architecture, which is product placement, subliminal cues and descriptive tags, to nudge people."
For example, putting a picture of tasty looking fruit on supermarket trolleys could help "nudge" consumers to select more produce from the fruit aisle, she said.
Some consumers might buy something "gourmet and healthy" - such as spiralised courgette noodles - simply to impress their friends, she said.
"Choice is a really complex thing. But this study suggests that giving vegetables an indulgent tag can help raise their hierarchy."
Simple ways to meet your five a day
- Have a side salad with your main meal
- Add grated carrot or courgette to your pasta sauces, stews and curries
- Add extra vegetables or fruit to pizza
- Snack on carrots, cucumber or celery
- Instead of a sweet pudding, try low-fat natural yogurt, topped with chopped banana and strawberries