When what you’re reaching for has healthy labeling, you’re not going to think it tastes as good. (Photo:Getty Images)
Food labels don’t just give you product information — they can have a big impact on how things actually taste.
That’s the major finding from new research out of Ghent University, which had a small group of 129 people in a laboratory setting try three “versions” of the exact same Gouda cheese. One had a normal label, another was marked “light,” and another was labeled “reduced salt.”
Here’s what researchers discovered:
People didn’t like the taste of the “light” cheese as much as they liked the taste of the “regular” cheese
Participants thought that the “reduced salt” cheese tasted less salty
…even though it was the same cheese. The results were published in the journal Nutrients.
“We were rather surprised that people still are tricked when tasting a product if it is accompanied with health-related labels,” study co-author Joachim Schouteten, a researcher at Ghent University, tells Yahoo Health, calling the “reduced salt” perception, in particular, “stunning.”
Schouteten says the phenomenon might be due to the pervasive notion that healthy food just doesn’t taste all that great. “People tend to believe that an unhealthy food is inherently tastier; correspondingly, this could explain that consumers perceive healthy food products as less tasty,” he says.
Past experience can also come into play, he says. If someone has tried “light” foods in the past that just didn’t taste as good as the full-fat version, they may automatically assume the same is true for all light foods — and that can end up playing tricks on their taste buds.
This can have a big impact on what you buy, since study co-author Hans De Steur, PhD, a research assistant at Ghent University, tells Yahoo Health that taste is one of the main reasons why we purchase certain foods. As a result, reading a label that says a product may be healthier might actually be a turn-off for us. “It can be expected that the negative connotations associated with health labels, initially intended to stimulate people, are somewhat preventing people from buying it,” he says.
Unfortunately, Schouteten says there’s not a “miracle solution” to overcome this bias, since it’s so deeply ingrained in many of us. “People really need to change their own opinion about the fact that health-labeled food are not lacking an ingredient and are therefore tasting less good,” he says.
However, if you want to shift from eating a full-fat product to its less fatty cousin, he recommends doing so in stages, for example, trying a medium-fat cheese before moving to a low-fat cheese. “A person always needs time to get familiar with a new taste,” he explains.
Awareness of this bias is important, though, registered dietitian nutritionist Beth Warren, author of Living a Real Life With Real Food tells Yahoo Health. “You can convince your mind something tastes good simply by positively reminding yourself that the foods may actually taste better,” she says.
She recommends working to correct your thought process when you read food labels. If you read “less salt” and automatically think “less taste,” take a beat and then think “Wow, this will taste so good and it’s so good for me.” Doing it repeatedly should help shift your thinking. “You can change your mind by talking to yourself convincing you of the opposite,” says Warren.
While New York City registered dietitian Jessica Cording tells Yahoo Health that full-fat or “regular” foods aren’t necessarily bad in moderation, she says there are other mind tricks you can try if you want to cut back. She suggests telling yourself that you can always add more salt or sweetener if you really need. “Also, if you completely hate something, you never have to have it again,” she says. “You never know, though — you might find you really like it.”