Just because a menu item is called a salad doesn’t mean it’s healthy. According to University of South Carolina researchers, dieters are more likely to be misled by healthy food labels than those who aren’t worrying about their nutrition and health. That is, if you’re dieting, just focusing can food names can work to your disadvantage.
The Los Angeles Times describes the researchers’ experiment:
In the pasta-masquerading-as-salad experiment, 76 people were randomly approached and offered $5 to participate in an experiment. Researchers asked them to imagine ordering from their favorite lunch menu and seeing a daily special (a color photo was included):
“Diced tomatoes, onions and red peppers tossed with pasta shells, salami, mozzarella cheese and dressed with a savory herb vinaigrette. Served chilled on a bed of fresh romaine lettuce.”
(Stop and note which of those ingredients don’t sound so salad-y, especially if you’re thinking of watching cholesterol, sodium, and calories.)
The Los Angeles Times then says:
The dish was described as the “daily salad special” to some of the subjects and “daily pasta special” to others. The subjects rated how healthful and how nutritious the dish appeared to be on a scale of 1 to 7. Then, they filled out a questionnaire on dieting habits, such as how often they read nutrition labels or whether they often planned out meals for the day, and the researchers divided the group into dieters and non-dieters.
The dieters were more likely to be fooled by the labeling. They gave the dish a slightly higher healthy grade—4.7 compared to 4.0—if it was labeled as a salad than if it was called pasta. The non-dieters gave both about the same grade.
In a related experiment, researchers gave college students twenty Jelly Belly Fruit Sours (equal numbers of apple, cherry, lemon, orange and grape) to eat while watching a nine-minute movie. Some students were told the candies were “fruit chews” while others were told they were “candy chews.” As you may have already guessed, if the students were dieting, they ate more if they had been told they were eating “fruit chews.”
Science Daily notes some other food terms that can lead dieters astray, such as calling potato chips “veggie chips,” milkshakes “smoothies,” and sugary drinks “flavored water,” and quotes the study’s authors:
“Over time, dieters learn to focus on simply avoiding foods that they recognize as forbidden based on product name. Thus, dieters likely assume that an item assigned an unhealthy name (for example, pasta) is less healthy than an item assigned a healthy name (for example, salad), and they do not spend time considering other product information that might impact their product evaluations.”
But those who aren’t dieting don’t teach themselves to avoid foods based on their names and, “given that they are not focused on healthful eating, are more likely to dismiss cues that imply healthfulness, including name.”
In other words, sometimes a salad is really pretty much a plate of mac ‘n’ cheese.
The study was published online on April 12 in the Journal of Consumer Research
Photo by Rooey202