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Commentary Science

Rejoice. There’s a simple way to get people to eat their vegetables. Just tell them they’re tasty.

Yes, Gwyneth Paltrow, I’m talking to you.

The insight comes from a research letter published June 12 in JAMA Internal Medicine. Researchers from Stanford commandeered the vegetable section of a large university cafeteria, and labeled the veggies with language designed to highlight various aspects of the dish: At some meals they highlighted the indulgent nature of the dish; at others they labeled to show that the dish lacked bad things or to spotlight potentially positive health effects. For example, beets were labeled variously as “Dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets,” “Lighter-choice beets with no added sugar,” and “High-antioxidant beets.” People chose the indulgently labeled dishes 41 percent more often than dishes with the “healthy restrictive” label and 35 percent more often than the dishes with the “healthy positive” labels. They also ate more of them.

    1. My first reaction to this study—and I assume yours—was “Yeah, but it wouldn’t work on me.” In fact, I bet if you asked almost anyone, they’d say the same thing. Some of us, maybe all of us, have to be wrong. Sure, you might be the exception, but you’re probably not, and it’s important to process that idea. If you want to lead people, it helps to understand that you share the things that motivate them.
    2. The main thing to notice was that it was taste rather than naturalness or healthiness or any of the stuff the food community worries about that won people over. Not reason but emotions. That gets tricky for food manufacturers and retailers that are trying to differentiate themselves from the competition based on the idea that they offer a healthier product. It’s important to go to market with a unique selling proposition, but what do you do when you know that your proposition is less effective than the other guy’s?
    3. What goes unmentioned in the study is that the same tactic has been working for generations for all sorts of food, including things you really shouldn’t be putting in your mouth. The question in my mind is if it comes down to a battle of superlatives, can broccoli really hold its own against Cheetos? (Yeah, I know, you think broccoli is far more delicious than Cheetos. See point one.) Maybe we’re stuck with reason and science instead of emotion. If you’re thinking like a scientist or an educator, that’s fine, but when you’ve got on your marketing hat, it totally sucks.

Part of the reason it sucks, of course, is that not enough people really understand food and nutrition. It’s hard to win people over when they don’t already have the right sort of standards to judge by.

10 percent of British kids aged 11 to 14 don’t know that carrots and potatoes grow underground, and 16 percent of 5- to 7-year-olds think that bread, yogurt, and salmon belong in the fruit-and-vegetable category.

How bad are things? Well, the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) recently released the results of a survey of British schoolchildren. According to the BNF, 10 percent of British kids aged 11 to 14 don’t know that carrots and potatoes grow underground, and 16 percent of 5- to 7-year-olds think that bread, yogurt, and salmon belong in the fruit-and-vegetable category.

Now part of me (a lot of me) wants to write most of this off as evidence that British schoolchildren are smartasses. (That is, like my kids. If no grade was involved, I can easily imagine any of my children answering that tomatoes grow underground, as some of the Brit kids did. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine that they’d answer anything else.) But it raises the interesting question of how much people really need to know about their food. Someone with limited knowledge can nonetheless fall into a reasonably healthy diet just by paying attention to taste and appetite alone. Going by taste and appetite alone can get you pretty far. But if that person needs to fine tune what they eat (say, to control diabetes), it would be useless to give them a conventional set of dietary guidelines.

This is a place where sound, trusted, public institutions make all the difference.

Where it really gets sticky, though, is when we try to expand what we know about food as a product on the plate, and try to understand and humanize the food system—to make it more just to the people who work in it, more accessible to all of society, and more protective of the environment. At that level, most of us are as bad as those poor kids who thought tomatoes come from underground. The news is full of disturbing and often surprising revelations and questions about the food system, from slavery in the supply chain that brings us seafood to callous disregard for life in the Peanut Corporation of America case, and from allegations of massive mislabeling of grain as organic to accusations of phony, co-opted science on food. To make the system work takes knowledge—deep, practical knowledge—of where food comes from and who does what to it, at every step. Without that knowledge, the best we can hope for is what we’ve got in the wider public—a succession of crazes, scares, and goofy, uninformed choices. (Yes, Gwyneth Paltrow, I’m talking to you.)

I see the appeal of trying to inform the vast American public at the grassroots level, but it’s hard to believe that a strategy like that can bring about the kind of change we need. This is a place where sound, trusted, public institutions make all the difference.

Remember trusted institutions? I miss them too.

When the wave of lawsuits against food companies alleging that they used the word “natural” deceptively began, most suits were settled. Today, most are dismissed.

Speaking of institutions, it’s now a bit more than a year since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ended its solicitation of public opinions on the meaning of “natural” as it applies to foods. If there’s been any progress toward defining the term, I haven’t seen it. The FDA’s website includes the following message: “Although the FDA has not engaged in rulemaking to establish a formal definition for the term ‘natural,’ we do have a longstanding policy concerning the use of ‘natural’ in human food labeling. The FDA has considered the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food. However, this policy was not intended to address food production methods, such as the use of pesticides, nor did it explicitly address food processing or manufacturing methods, such as thermal technologies, pasteurization, or irradiation. The FDA also did not consider whether the term ‘natural’ should describe any nutritional or other health benefit.”

Helpful? One interesting fact: When the wave of lawsuits against food companies alleging that they used the word “natural” deceptively began, most suits were settled. Today, most are dismissed. Whether you think that’s good or bad depends on where you sit, I suppose. But there are still muddles that really ought to be solved. Over at Food Navigator, for example, Elaine Watson reports that the flavored water maker Hint petitioned a California court to suspend a “natural” lawsuit against it until FDA resolved its definitions. And the company has a point. The suit is over the inclusion of propylene glycol in its products. As Watson explains, propylene glycol isn’t something you’d expect to find in a natural product. But it is covered by FDA’s definition of a “natural flavor.” Should we just hand this one to a jury? What could go wrong?

And speaking of “natural,” here’s another one for the “nature red in tooth and claw” file. Scientists have determined that marine sponges produce polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) nearly identical to man-made flame retardants. The point isn’t that you should avoid eating sponges (though you should). It’s just a reminder that however we ultimately define the word, “natural” isn’t always synonymus with “nice.”

Patrick Clinton

Patrick Clinton is a long-time journalist and educator. He edited the Chicago Reader during the politically exciting years that surrounded the election of the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington; University Business during the early days of for-profit universities and online instruction; and Pharmaceutical Executive during a period that saw the Vioxx scandal and the ascendancy of biotech. He has written and worked as a staff editor for a variety of publications, including Chicago, Men’s Journal, and Outside (for which he ran down the answer to everyone’s most burning question about porcupines). For seven years, he taught magazine writing and editing at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.