Retail food and drink trends

Do consumers think ‘pretty food’ is healthier?

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New research shows that consumers believe that food that looks aesthetically pleasing is often healthier. Does the ‘pretty food’ factor really impact consumer perception of a products healthy credentials?

Consumers see almost 7,000 food and restaurant advertisements per year, with the vast majority touting fast food. In marketing materials, food is extensively styled to look especially pretty. Imagine the beautiful pizza you might see on a billboard — a perfect circle of crust with flawlessly allocated pepperoni and melted cheese. Advertisers clearly aim to make the food more appetising. But do pretty aesthetics have other, potentially problematic, effects on your impressions of food?

In a series of experiments, the researcher tested if the same food is perceived as healthier when it looks pretty by following classical aesthetics principles (i.e., symmetry, order, and systematic patterns) compared to when it does not. For example, in one experiment, participants evaluated avocado toast. Everyone read identical ingredient and price information, but people were randomly assigned to see either a pretty avocado toast or an ugly avocado toast (the pictures had previously been, on average, rated as differentially pretty). Despite identical information about the food, respondents rated the avocado toast as overall healthier (e.g., healthier, more nutritious, fewer calories) and more natural (e.g., purer, less processed) if they saw the pretty version compared to the ugly version. As suspected, the difference in naturalness judgments drove the difference in healthiness judgments. Judgments of other aspects, like freshness or size, were unaffected. Experiments with different foods and prettiness manipulations returned the same pattern of results, suggesting that the effect is unlikely idiosyncratic to certain pictures.

Importantly, these healthiness judgments affect consumer behaviour. In a field experiment, people were willing to pay significantly more money for a pretty bell pepper than an ugly one, and a substantial portion of this boost in reservation prices was attributable to an analogous boost in healthiness judgments. In another study, even when people had financial incentives to correctly identify which of two foods contained fewer calories, they were more likely to declare a target food to be the lower calorie option when it was pretty than when it was ugly — even though this choice lost them money.

Obviously, this research highlights how aesthetics can influence consumer decisions, and also shows there is still a hurdle to jump when convincing consumers to adopt ‘ugly’ fruit and veg in an effort to reduce food waste.

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