Eating with your eyes – food that looks good doesn't mean it's healthier

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  • As consumers, we are bombarded with food advertisements
  • These advertisements only portray visually appealing foods
  • Consumers tend to opt for 'pretty' foods in the belief that they are healthier 

As consumers, we see a vast number of food advertisements yearly, with most of these endorsing fast foods. Advertisers aim to make these foods look more appetising to consumers and thereby influence them to buy these products.

Take advertisements promoting a burger, for example – perfectly round toasted buns filled with crisp green lettuce, bright red tomato, layers of golden cheese and a flawlessly griddled patty. Consumers cannot help being drawn to the product.

These aesthetics set a standard of what “good food” is supposed to look like, which, at the same time, leads to questions around how ethical such a standard is. 

Professor Linda Hagen who is affiliated with the University of Southern California questioned whether the way consumers visually perceive food could potentially be problematic. 

Professor Hagen, therefore, conducted research assessing whether consumers perceive attractive food as being healthier.

The paper was published in the Journal of Marketing.

Classical aesthetic principles

Professor Hagen conducted a series of ten experiments (six main and four supplemental studies) to see how consumers perceive pretty foods compared to ugly foods, with participants having to judge which they regarded as being healthier.

The experiments involved a large sample of 4 301 participants who were given the opportunity to judge healthy and unhealthy, processed and unprocessed, and photographed and real foods.

Classical aesthetic principles were applicable in the case of the pretty foods, and these include features like symmetry, order and balance.

These principles tend to make objects appear more natural, allowing the researcher to see whether consumers link naturalness with healthiness. One of the experiments involved participants judging two versions of avocado toast – one ugly and one pretty.

The images were accompanied by information which showed identical price and nutritional value. Another experiment offered financial incentives when participants correctly identified which food (ugly or pretty) had a lower calorie count.

Distorted nutrition estimates

The study found firstly that consumers associate natural appearances with healthiness. Secondly, consumers perceived pretty foods as being healthier.

In the avocado toast experiment, participants judged the prettier option as being healthier despite information stating that both had the same nutritional value. Participants also regarded prettier foods as having a lower calorie count, despite the financial stakes involved, and even after losing money, they would still judge prettier foods as being lower in calories. 

Finally, consumers' judgements on ugly and pretty foods also affected their buying habits, as shown in one of the experiments where participants were willing to pay much more for a prettier bell pepper than an ugly one. 

Professor Hagen warns: “Pretty food presentation may optimistically distort nutrition estimates and negatively impact dietary decisions. Given these findings, policy-makers may want to consider modification disclaimers as an intervention or strengthen regulations around providing objective nutrition information with food image.

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