“Pretty” food perceived as healthier may distort nutrition estimates and can cost more, study finds


09 Nov 2020 — Consumers may perceive “prettier” food as healthier, specifically because classical aesthetic features, such as order, symmetry and balance, make it appear more natural.

A study published in the Journal of Marketing investigated how people judged prettier versions of the same food as healthier, for example more nutrients or less fat, despite the equal perceived price. This was observed across unhealthy and healthy, processed and unprocessed, and photographed and real foods alike.

Even given financial stakes, meaning paying higher prices for a more natural-appearing food item, test subjects were “misled by prettiness,” the study found.

“Pretty food presentation may optimistically distort nutrition estimates and negatively impact dietary decisions,” says study author Linda Hagen from the University of Southern California, US.

“Given that pretty food styling can harm consumers by misleading healthiness judgments for unhealthy foods, managers and policymakers should consider modification disclaimers as a tool to mitigate the ‘pretty = healthy’ bias,” she flags.

Click to EnlargeMarketers frequently style food to look pretty in advertising.Pretty or ugly avocado toast?
The term “pretty” is defined as being both appetizing and natural. Hagen found nature-resembling visual features, most notably symmetry, might make food depictions feel more natural. 

In one study example, Hagen tested to see if participants would still perceive foods as healthier when aesthetically pleasing and natural-appearing in an avocado case test.

She had participants from both groups read identical ingredient and price information, but one group either saw a “pretty” avocado toast – based on – or an “ugly” avocado toast.

Compared to the ugly food group, those assigned a “pretty” avocado toast version rated it as overall healthier – indicating it to be more nutritious or having fewer calories – and more natural, perceiving it to be purer or less processed.

Providing additional evidence of a “natural = healthy” connection between foods, the difference in naturalness judgments drove the difference in healthiness judgments. Judgments of other aspects, like freshness or size, were unaffected. 

Prepared to pay more for pretty
The healthier a food item was regarded, the more the test subjects were willing to pay for it. In a test with bell peppers, people were willing to pay significantly more money for a pretty than an ugly bell pepper.

In another study, participants were given financial incentives to determine which of the two presented foods contained fewer calories. Still, they 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.

Click to EnlargeThe study warns of a “pretty = healthy” bias.“Classical aesthetics may be a costless and subtle new way to convey naturalness and healthfulness – attributes that consumers increasingly demand in food products,” notes Hagen.

Developments in aesthetic eating 
Innova Market Insights’ top ninth trend for 2020 is crowned “Eat Pretty,” establishing a crossover between beauty and health. 

The booming market for “instagrammable” food on social media highlights how influential looks can be in driving consumer purchasing power. Moreover, that initial perception of a food item’s health halo also often starts with its packaging and on-pack labels.

Moreover, a Kerry report from last year warned that consumers associating untarnished food as depicted in advertising as healthy, and vice versa, is contributing to severe food waste.

As trends continue to evolve, the market researcher points to its sixth top trend for 2021: “Nutrition Hacking.” Technology is addressing demands for F&B with enhanced nutritional values, sustainability or ethical impacts. It raises the question whether marketing and product presentation might play a contributing role here as well. 

Edited by Anni Schleicher

This feature is provided by FoodIngredientsFirst’s sister website, NutritionInsight.

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