Raw spinach is boring; canned spinach is straight-up unappetizing. But when Popeye popped open a can of spinach and chucked it down his gullet for a boost of strength and energy, it seemed like the most badass thing ever. Popeye achieved the nearly impossible by persuading kids to think canned spinach — a decidedly gross vegetable — was exciting and appealing.

Research suggests that similar thinking persists in young adults. In a research letter published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine on Monday, Bradley Turnwald, Danielle Boles, and Alia Crum explain that people in a university cafeteria were much more likely to eat vegetables labeled with indulgent descriptions than vegetables labeled in a descriptive way or in a way that highlighted their health benefits.

corn rich buttery roasted sweet reduced sodium health vegetables closeup
People like "rich buttery roasted sweet corn" more than "reduced-sodium corn"—even though the food was exactly the same.

To conduct this study, researchers labeled an fairly typical vegetables — carrots, green beans, sweet potatoes, and others — in four different ways to see how different labels affected the number of diners that would choose to eat them: basic, healthy restrictive, healthy positive, or indulgent.”

“When each vegetable was served, it was labeled in one of these four ways. For example, sweet potatoes were described as either “sweet potatoes” (basic), “cholesterol-free sweet potatoes” (healthy restrictive), “wholesome sweet potato superfood” (healthy positive), or “zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes” (indulgent).

Here’s the kicker: While the labeling changed, the way the vegetables were prepared did not. The only thing that changed was the words used to describe the food.

Here’s how that played out: 25 percent more diners chose the indulgent option over the basic one, 41 percent more diners chose the indulgent option over the healthy restrictive option, and 35 percent more chose the indulgent labeling over healthy positive. They also found that diners served 23 percent more mass of indulgently-labeled vegetables over the basic condition and 33 percent more over the healthy restrictive condition.

Diners were not only more likely to choose the indulgent option over all others, they also served themselves more of it. After all, wouldn’t you rather have something that sounds like a menu option at your favorite restaurant than the one that sounds like an extra-shitty diet meal? Which sounds better: “dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets,” or “lighter-choice beets with no added sugar”? It’s no contest.

This adjective-loading could help food service establishments figure out better ways to cater to people’s desire for interesting and tasty food while still helping them eat well.

“These results challenge existing solutions that aim to promote healthy eating by highlighting health properties or benefits and extend previous research that used other creative labeling strategies, such as using superhero characters, to promote vegetable consumption in children,” write the study authors. So maybe indulgent descriptions of veggies are the adult version of Popeye shotgunning a can of spinach.

Abstract: In response to increasing rates of obesity, many dining establishments have focused on promoting the health properties and benefits of nutritious foods to encourage people to choose healthier options. Ironically however, health-focused labeling of food may be counter-effective, as people rate foods that they perceive to be healthier as less tasty. Healthy labeling is even associated with higher hunger hormone levels after consuming a meal compared with when the same meal is labeled indulgently. How can we make healthy foods just as appealing as more classically indulgent and unhealthy foods? Because healthy foods are routinely labeled with fewer appealing descriptors than standard foods, this study tested whether labeling vegetables with the flavorful, exciting, and indulgent descriptors typically reserved for less healthy foods could increase vegetable consumption.

Photos via Flickr / plasticrevolver, Flickr / Gary_Koelling, Flickr / Muffet