A researcher from University of Southern California released a new paper in the Journal of Marketing that investigates whether pretty food might appear healthy for consumers. The study in the Journal of Marketing is titled “Pretty Healthy Food: How and When Aesthetics Enhance Perceived Healthiness” and is authored by Linda Hagen.
Consumers see nearly 7,000 restaurant and food advertisements per year, with the huge majority promoting fast food. In marketing, fast food is broadly styled to be especially pretty food. Imagine the beautiful pizza you might see on a billboard–a perfect circle of crust using flawlessly allocated pepperoni and melted cheese. Advertisers clearly aim to produce the food more appetizing. But do pretty aesthetics have other, possibly debatable, effects in your feelings of meals?
On one hand, beautiful aesthetics are closely associated with pleasure and indulgence. Looking at beautiful art and individuals activates the brain’s reward center and celebrating beauty is inherently gratifying. This link with pleasure might make pretty food look unhealthy, because people are inclined to view potency and pleasure as mutually exclusive. For instance, lots of individuals have the general intuition that food is either tasty or healthy, but not both.
On the other hand, a specific type of aesthetics called “classical” aesthetics is distinguished by the perfect patterns found in nature. As an example, a key classical aesthetic characteristic is symmetry, which is also extremely common in nature. It seems possible that sporting more of these nature-like visual features might make pretty food depictions feel much more natural. Seeming more natural, in turn, can make the fast food seem healthier because people are inclined to consider natural items (e.g., organic food or natural remedies) to be fitter than unnatural items (e.g., highly processed food or artificial chemicals). So, by virtue of reflecting nature, the same food might seem healthier when it is pretty (compared to if it is ugly).
In a series of experiments, the researcher tested if the same food is perceived as healthier is perceived as healthy as it is pretty food by following classical aesthetics fundamentals (i.e., symmetry, order, and orderly patterns) when compared with when it doesn’t. For instance, in one experiment, participants evaluated avocado toast. Everyone read identical ingredient and price information, but folks were randomly assigned to view either a fairly avocado toast or an ugly avocado toast (the images had previously been, on average, rated as differentially pretty). Despite identical information about the food, researchers rated the avocado toast as overall healthier (e.g., healthier, fitter, fewer calories) and more organic (e.g., purer, less processed) should they saw the pretty version in comparison to the ugly version. As supposed, the difference in naturalness decisions drove the gap in healthiness judgments. Judgments of different facets, like size or lace, were unaffected. Experiments with different foods and prettiness manipulations returned exactly the exact same pattern of results, suggesting the effect is improbable idiosyncratic to particular pictures.
Significantly, these healthiness decisions affect customer behavior. In a field experiment, individuals were willing to pay more money for a pretty bell pepper than an ugly one, along with a substantial part of this increase in prices was attributable to an analogous boost in healthiness decisions. In another study, even if individuals had fiscal incentives to properly identify which of two meals contained fewer calories they were likely to declare a target food to function as decrease calorie choice when it was pretty food than once it was unattractive – even though this decision lost them money.
There are a few key qualifications. The fairly healthy effect is restricted to classical aesthetics. “Expressive” aesthetics do not involve nature-like patterns, but rather please during imaginative execution of innovative ideas, such as meals cut into interesting shapes or arranged to portray a scene. Secondly, the pretty healthy bias can be muted by displaying a disclaimer next to the food reminding people that the food was artificially modified.
This effect of ancient aesthetic principles has consequences for Hagen Clarifies that Hagen explains that “Classical aesthetics may be a costless and subtle new way to convey naturalness and healthfulness–attributes that consumers increasingly demand in food products. At the same time, pretty food presentation may optimistically distort nutrition estimates and negatively impact dietary decisions. Given these findings, policy-makers may want to consider modification disclaimers as an intervention or strengthen regulations around providing objective nutrition information with food images.”
Related Journal Article: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0022242920944384