Imagine a gorgeous loaf of French bread. Or a tray of adorable hors d’oeuvres. Or the perfect pound cake. They must be somewhat healthy, right? Made with natural ingredients? Short answer: no.
An entertaining study out of the University of Southern California finds that we perceive attractive food to be healthier. “People are often misled by the prettiness of food, and that bias can affect consumer choices and willingness to pay for food,” says lead author Linda Hagen, an assistant professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business.
Her series of 11 studies followed 4,300 participants as they looked at photos and samples of food, and then evaluated the foods’ healthiness and level of processing. Overwhelmingly, participants expected pretty food to be more nutritious and both less fatty and caloric, and repeatedly stated that pleasing food is healthier. One study had 400 people look at two pieces of avocado toast, one neatly sliced and presented, and the other with the avocado smeared on. Participants found the handsome toast to be healthier and “more natural.”
This faux perception of “natural” turns out to be the lynchpin. Hagen delved into the why, and found that “people associate aesthetic beauty with nature and natural things, which transfers to perceptions that pretty food is healthy food,” she says. In other words, our minds’ false thoughts go something like: Wow that’s a pretty pizza! >> It must be made with “natural” ingredients. >> Therefore it’s kinda healthy. >> I’m gonna eat that. Yum.
Fun fact: Classical aesthetics are at play here. The participants found the foods with more symmetry, patterns, order, and balance to be more beautiful. These are also the traits of classical beauty, which mimics aesthetics found in nature, such as the patterns found in a flower or honeycomb.
Given that we all are all apparently easily deceived, Hagen suggests food labeling and advertising policies that inform consumers when food has been modified. Her work is published in the Journal of Marketing.