Want college students to eat their veggies? Give them exciting names

If you thought telling college students to eat their vegetables to be healthy was enough to get them to chow down, think again.

How the vegetables are described plays a huge role as well, according to a new study published in Jama Internal Medicine.

Researchers observed 8,279 students who had chosen vegetables in a Stanford University dining hall. Students selected from among corn, green beans, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, zucchini, carrots, or bok choy with mushrooms. But on certain days, researchers changed the name of the vegetable to something eye-catching to see if it would pull them in.

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For example, one day the sweet potatoes might just be labeled "sweet potatoes." But the next day, the exact same vegetable, prepared in the same way, would be labeled "zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes." Similarly, carrots had a basic label at first, "carrots," but were later labeled, "twisted citrus-glazed carrots."

It turned out that 25% more people chose the sweet potatoes when it had the indulgent, more eye-catching title. The same was true for carrots and the rest of the vegetables—students selected them more when they had a creative name.

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The name was the only thing that changed, which shows that trying to get people to eat healthier probably shouldn't involve promoting its health benefits, but instead just making the name more appealing, says Alia J. Crum, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford who worked on the study. "If you want a college kid to eat his veggies, it's much better to call them 'sweet sizzling green beans and crispy shallots' or 'rich buttery roasted sweet corn,' writes Nicholas Bakalar in the New York Times.

Crum says that in order to change the perception of healthy eating generally, we have to start having a dialogue about healthy foods' tasty and flavorful characteristics, just like we do with our milkshakes and burgers (Bakalar, New York Times, 6/14; Knight, CNN, 6/19).

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