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Why We Think Prettier Food Is Healthier, and How to Overcome the Bias

Ugly apples

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Key Takeaways

  • In a recent study, food that is aesthetically pleasing is considered to be healthier by study participants.
  • This is a huge problem, given the amount of food that is discarded in the U.S., particularly perishable food like produce.
  • Experts believe that cultivating more awareness about biases, and tapping into the "ugly food" movement can help.

Food that is considered "pretty" is also perceived as healthier, a new research review published in the Journal of Marketing suggests.

Looking at 10 studies with a total number of 4,301 participants, researcher Linda Hagen, Ph.D., from the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California assessed the effects of marketing images on consumer perception.

She found that classic aesthetic principles—such as order, symmetry, and balance—made study participants perceive food as more "natural," and they equated that quality with healthy attributes like more nutrients and less fat.

The Power of Aesthetics

In the research review, Hagen found that sometimes simply arranging food in a more aesthetically pleasing manner was enough to change people's opinions around how healthy the food was. One of the biggest issues here, she believes, is that unhealthy food that is photographed in a highly aesthetically pleasing way might prompt a reaction from consumers that it's healthy.

That's no surprise to anyone who's ever seen a fast-food ad with glistening hamburgers and crisp-looking lettuce, but the subconscious part of our brain may not recognize the trickery the way the conscious mind does.

"That means consumers run the risk of making unintended, unhealthy choices when food is advertised or served looking especially pretty," she says. "Rather than see this food as unhealthy but a source of indulgence, they actually see these foods as healthy because they look more natural."

The Perception of Pretty

In addition to thinking of these foods as more natural, there are other factors that may be influencing the gravitation toward prettiness, Hagen adds.

For example, she says people may think pretty food also has these attributes:

  • Fresher and safer
  • Lower in calories
  • More sophisticated
  • Better prepared
  • Higher quality ingredients

In one study she reviewed, two preparations of avocado toast were made, each with the same ingredients of one slice of wheat bread and half of an avocado. One version was styled "ugly" with the avocado mashed up and spread on the toast, while the other had avocado slices arranged in a patterned, aesthetically pleasing way.

Participants rated the latter version as significantly healthier, even though it was identical to the "ugly" version.

Linda Hagen, PhD

Consumers run the risk of making unintended, unhealthy choices when food is advertised or served looking especially pretty. Rather than see this food as unhealthy but a source of indulgence, they actually see these foods as healthy because they look more natural.

— Linda Hagen, PhD

The same effect happens with produce. In another study, a red bell pepper with nearly perfect symmetry was evaluated compared to one that was just as fresh, with no blemishes, but looked "dented" from the way it had grown. Much like in the toast example, participants rated the prettier pepper as more nutritious, even though they could have been picked from the exact same plant.

Why It's a Problem

Marketers who want to showcase their food products by photographing them in clever, aesthetically pleasing ways aren't likely to switch over to harsh lighting and lackluster arrangements.

In that case, consumer awareness is currently the best remedy for perceiving unhealthy foods as nutritious. But when it comes to produce, like the bell pepper, that's where there needs to be more work done at multiple levels, believes dietitian Kara Hoerr, RDN.'

Food Waste

Not only is food waste a major issue—the USDA estimates that up to 40% of the U.S. food supply is thrown away—but there is also pressure on farmers to grow produce based on looks, Hoerr says.

"Many foods are grown primarily for appearance, such as rich color and uniform size and shape," she notes. "What they make up for in appearance, they may actually lack in taste, especially because it often travels long distances after harvest. When that happens, it can lose some of its nutritional value.'

Often, produce with blemishes or less-than-perfect appearance are locally grown and don't travel far, she says. That means they're harvested later, so can be more nutritious, and tend to taste better and have more freshness.

"The misfits and ugly produce movement is growing in momentum, and helping dispel the myth that produce must look a certain way to be edible or taste good," Hoerr adds. "They're also helping to use these 'defected' produce rather than have them go to waste."

What This Means for You

The next time you go grocery shopping, pay attention to your thought process when selecting produce. If you find yourself constantly gravitating towards the biggest, shiniest, perfectly shaped foods, you may have fallen for the pretty food mindset.

There's nothing wrong with having a preference for attractive foods, just remember that it doesn't make the food healthier than the slightly uglier alternative.

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  1. Hagen L. Pretty healthy food: how and when aesthetics enhance perceived healthinessJournal of Marketing. Published online September 14, 2020:002224292094438. doi:10.1177/0022242920944384

  2. USDA. Food waste FAQs.