Why people think pretty foods are healthier
A University of Southern California study has explored whether attractive food might seem healthier to consumers.
Consumers see almost 7000 food and restaurant advertisements per year, with the vast majority touting fast food. In marketing materials, food is extensively styled to look especially pretty.
Imagine the beautiful pizza you might see on a billboard — a perfect circle of crust with flawlessly allocated pepperoni and melted cheese. Advertisers aim to make the food more appetising, the report said.
But do pretty aesthetics have other, potentially problematic, effects on your impressions of food?
Lead researcher Linda Hagen said that on the one hand, beautiful aesthetics are closely associated with pleasure and indulgence.
“Looking at beautiful art and people activates the brain’s reward centre, and observing beauty is inherently gratifying. This link with pleasure might make pretty food seem unhealthy because people tend to view pleasure and usefulness as mutually exclusive,” Hagen said.
“For instance, many people have the general intuition that food is either tasty or healthy, but not both.”
On the other hand, a specific type of aesthetics called “classical aesthetics” is characterised by the ideal patterns found in nature.
Seeming more natural may make the food appear healthier because people tend to consider natural things (organic food or natural remedies) to be healthier than unnatural things (highly processed food or synthetic chemicals). So, the same food may seem healthier by reflecting nature when it is pretty (compared to when it is ugly).
In a series of experiments, the researcher tested if the same food is perceived as healthier when it looks pretty by following classical aesthetics principles (ie, symmetry, order and systematic patterns) compared to when it does not.
One experiment saw participants evaluate avocado toast.
Everyone read identical ingredients and price information, but people were randomly assigned to see either a pretty avocado toast or an ugly avocado toast (the pictures had previously been, on average, rated as differentially pretty).
Despite identical information about the food, respondents rated the avocado toast as overall healthier (eg, healthier, more nutritious, fewer calories) and more natural (eg, purer, less processed) if they saw the pretty version compared to the ugly version.
The difference in naturalness judgments drove the difference in healthiness judgments. Judgments of other aspects, like freshness or size, were unaffected. Experiments with different foods and prettiness manipulations returned the same pattern of results, suggesting that the effect is unlikely idiosyncratic to certain pictures.
The report said these healthiness judgments affect consumer behaviour.
In another experiment, people were willing to pay significantly more money for a pretty bell pepper than an ugly one. A substantial portion of this boost in reservation prices was attributable to a comparable boost in healthiness judgments.
Another study gave financial incentives to participants to identify which of the two foods contained fewer calories.
The results found people were more likely to declare a target food to be the lower calorie option when it was pretty than when it was ugly — even though this choice lost them money.
Hagen admits there are some are limitations to the findings.
First, the ‘pretty equals healthy’ effect is limited to classical aesthetics. Expressive aesthetics do not involve nature-like patterns, but instead please through imaginative execution of creative ideas, such as food cut into fun shapes or arranged to depict a scene. Second, the pretty equals healthy bias can be muted by displaying a disclaimer next to the food reminding people that the food was artificially modified.
Still, the effect of classical aesthetic principles has implications for marketers and public health advocates, albeit different ones.
Hagen said classical aesthetics may be a costless and subtle new way to convey naturalness and healthfulness — attributes that consumers increasingly demand in food products.
“At the same time, pretty food presentation may optimistically distort nutrition estimates and negatively impact dietary decisions,” she said.
“Given these findings, policymakers may want to consider modification disclaimers as an intervention or strengthen regulations around providing objective nutrition information with food images.”
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