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“Pretty” does not equate to nutritional value of food

Pretty food on a plate
Consumers often mistakenly equate the visual attractiveness of food with its nutritional value, a study recently found. (Source: Adobe Stock)

During the holiday season, we’re often tempted by ads and commercials featuring beautifully photographed and presented meals and sweet treats. Year-round, we are bombarded by similar ads for restaurants and food products on a daily basis.

But while these images are pleasing to look at, they may also be influencing our perception of the foods’ health and nutritional value, a recent University of Southern California study claims. It found that consumers often mistakenly equate the visual attractiveness of food with healthy qualities … a tendency that food marketers can exploit.

In a series of experiments involving more than 4,000 participants, USC researchers asked them to examine photos as well as actual samples of food, then evaluate them as healthy or unhealthy and processed or unprocessed. For a wide variety of foods from ice cream to omelets, both men and women rated more visually attractive food as healthier.

“Time and again, in each of these experiments, people perceived the same food as more natural when it looks prettier and believe that this naturalness implies healthiness,” said Linda Hagen, an assistant professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “Consumers expect food to be more nutritious, less fatty and contain fewer calories when it looks pretty based on classical aesthetic principles, and that bias can affect consumer choices and willingness to pay for food.”

Given that highly stylized food advertisements can mislead consumers into making unhealthy choices, the study results also suggest that companies or regulators should consider measures such as putting disclaimers on food images in ads, Hagen added.

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