Sept. 18, 2012 -- Forget plain old carrots and boring broccoli.
Rebranding these veggies as "X-ray Vision Carrots" or "Power Punch Broccoli" helps more kids eat healthy at school, according to a new study.
The study, published in the Journal Preventive Medicine, exposed more than 1,000 kids in seven New York elementary schools to lunchtime veggie choices with and without innovative names like "Silly Dilly Green Beans" or "Tiny Tasty Tree Tops."
Students in the study ate twice as much veggies if they had new labels compared to veggies listed only as "Food of the Day."
In the second part of the study, the proportion of students picking hot servings of veggies with special labels nearly doubled over two months. Conversely, in schools that didn't display their veggies with new names, the percentage of students who selected a veggie serving went down by 16.2 percent.
"Giving anything a name goes a long way for making somebody believe it will taste better," said the lead author of the study, Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University.
In other words, he said, lead with an exciting name, and "your taste buds will follow."
To help come up with the catchy new names for the otherwise staid produce, Wansink enlisted the creative talents of Matt Klinger, a 16-year-old high school sophomore from New York State. Klinger also collected the data for part of the study and received high school credit for his work.
This proves that "anybody can do this," said Wansink. "You can be an energetic high school student."
Rebranding through a name change is a time-tested marketing strategy, said Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, who was not involved with the study.
"This is a very simple concept -- one familiar to every parent, and everyone in marketing," he said. "If you want someone to buy, you need to sell. If you want a kid to take interest, it helps to make it fun."
"It also shows that the marketing that is routinely used for 'junk' foods can be used to help promote uptake of healthy foods."
But do all healthy food names need to be snazzy cool titles? Wansink said the answer is no. As evidence, he pointed to a name used previously to entice kids -- "Bad Bean Burritos."
Not necessarily something an adult would want to lay a finger on. But the kids literally ate it up.
"It doesn't matter what they call it," said Wansink, "Anything that makes it sound unusual or special has impact... We find any names work perfectly fine."
These findings are applied to the "Smarter Lunchrooms Movement" that Wansink has spearheaded to assist school cafeterias in helping students eat healthier.
"Kids are on mindless autopilot when they go to the cafeteria. They're there to hang out with their friends." said Wansink, who is also the author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think." Kids don't go to the cafeteria to explore new culinary options, he said.
The strategy that works is to make it make it less convenient or attractive to choose unhealthy food options, Wansink said. He said he advocates subtle strategies to nudge kids in the right direction -- many of which are included in a list of useful easy strategies that are posted on the "Smarter Lunchrooms Movement" website.
And while the new research was carried out in the school setting, Wansink suggested that it might have applications for parents cooking at home as well.
"If you want to be a better cook and you only have five minutes to do it, you're better off spending that time coming up with creative way to describe the names of the food you're going to serve," he said, "instead of spending that five minutes to make that perfect sauce."