Beautiful Food Seems Healthier, Even When It’s Not

Beautiful food images are imposed on us everywhere. Find out what researchers at USC recommend to avoid making poor nutritional choices as a result.

I’m sitting down to write this after my usual Sunday Brunch ritual at my local haunt. When we’re not in the Orange Zone or above in our community, I’ve been indulging in this simple respite from pandemic monotony.

Comfort food is something we all have in common. We all eat every day, although our meal choices vary widely. 

Unlike most animals, we’re omnivores, meaning we can eat just about anything we can find. Other mammals have more specialized diets. The freedom to eat a wide range of nutritents also saddles us with the burden of making healthy food choices.

Another Human Trait is Our Appreciation for Beauty

 Another universal human trait is aesthetics, our appreciation for beauty. We take almost as much pleasure from classical beauty as we do from eating. 

 Classical beauty entails elements like symmetry, patterns, order and balance. Our species evolved by carefully observing these principles in nature, so experiencing classical beauty triggers our brain’s reward centre.

 So, what happens when we present plates using the principles of visual aesthetics? A study published in the Journal of Marketing last week found that people think beautiful food is more natural and that natural means healthy.

We Look at About 7,000 Ads for Food Every Year

Marketers have recognized this for decades. We look at about 7,000 ads for food every year, or roughly twenty commercials a day.

Most of these advertisements are for fast food. A well-established craft exists among photographers around making hamburgers and pizzas more visually appealing. 

Has the plate your server delivers ever looked as alluring as the picture in the menu? Artists devote substantial time and energy to produce photoshopped images of exquisitely arranged, symmetric, balanced cuisine.

Why We Say We Can “Almost Taste” the Meals Depicted

Just as beauty triggers our brains, so do delectable meal photos. They activate our gustatory cortex, which is why we say we can “almost taste” the meals depicted. In a sense, we do experience the taste in our heads.

The USC researchers who published the study were interested in building on this existing knowledge. They wanted to understand how our association of the beautiful with the natural influences nutritional choices.

Linda Hagen is an assistant professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business and the lead author of the study. She explains, “In our minds, people associate aesthetic beauty with nature and natural things, which transfers to perceptions that pretty food is healthy food, but people are often misled by the prettiness of food that’s not very good for you.”

Presented with Pictures and Actual Presentations of Food

To test their hypothesis that attractive food seems more natural and, therefore, healthier, the researchers performed a series of studies involving 4,300 people. The researchers presented their subjects with pictures and actual presentations of meals.

 For example, in one of the studies, researchers instructed 800 subjects to search the web and choose examples of ugly and beautiful food . The pictures the testees chose included ice cream, lasagna, sandwiches and many other items.

Then the team asked the participants to tell them which items were nutritious and healthy. The overwhelming majority thought the beautiful was more nourishing.

Majority Thought the Beautiful Food Was Healthier

Another group of 400 testees took on a different assignment. The investigators showed them two pictures of avocado toast. 

One picture presented fresh slices of avocado neatly arrayed on a crisp piece of bread. The other showed a dollop of avocado paste smeared onto the toast.

The researchers asked the subjects to rate how healthy, natural and tasty the fare in each image would be. They thought the subject in the attractive photo would be organic and nutritious, although not more delicious.

Organic and Nutritious but Not More Delicious

To delve deeper, the investigators switched the experiment up. They told the participants that one of two photos was aesthetically pleasing while the other was flawed.

It was a trick. The images were identical. The testees thought the “ugly” fare was less natural and nutritious than the beautiful food. Merely being told that a picture was flawed biased their meal choices.

During student move-in day at USC, the team tried something else. They set up a fruit stand on campus and showed each participant two green peppers. One of the peppers was very symmetrical, and the other was misshapen. 

Offered 56% More for Good-Looking Pepper than Odd One

They asked each student how much they would pay for each of the peppers. On average, they offered to pay 56% more for the good-looking pepper than the odd one because it seemed healthier.

“Time and again, in each of these experiments, people perceived the same food as more natural when it looks prettier and believe that this naturalness implies healthiness,” Professor Hagen explained. “Consumers expect food to be more nutritious, less fatty and contain fewer calories when it looks pretty based on classical aesthetic principles, and that bias can affect consumer choices and willingness to pay for food.”

This becomes an issue when we recall how bombarded we are with beautiful food images in the media. The study indicates that most of us think that good looking meals are healthy even when they’re bad for us.

Disclaimers on Beautiful Food Images

We already put ingredients and nutritional data on grocery labels. In more and more restaurants, we also see the number of calories each menu item contains.

The research team recommends that advertisers print disclaimers on beautiful food images. They conclude that the government should require promoters to remind viewers that enhanced photographs can make meals seem healthier than they are.

“The use of aesthetics that misleads people warrants close consideration by policymakers,” asserts Professor Hagan. “A statement that explicitly reminds people that pretty food was modified for depiction helped mitigate the effect in the lab, so disclaimers may be an effective way to protect consumers.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know. 
Learn more:
Don’t be fooled by pretty food, new USC research warns
Why Consumers Think Pretty Food Is Healthier
Pretty Healthy Food: How and When Aesthetics Enhance Perceived Healthiness
Food Ethics: An Embarrassment of Choices
Cultured Meat: Frankenfood or Factory Farm Fix?
Food Waste Explodes: Food Banks Face Empty Shelves

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