According to a recent study, whether it’s avocado toast or cupcakes, we expect attractive food to be better for us.
Previous research has found that a so-called “attractiveness halo” may lead some people to assume that good-looking people are smarter. Now a study from Linda Hagen of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles finds that a similar effect occurs with food.
The study finds that people consider prettier food to be more healthful.
Hagen’s study, “Pretty Healthy Food: How and When Aesthetics Enhance Perceived Healthiness,” appears in the Journal of Marketing.
According to the study, people have exposure to an estimated 4,013 food and 2,844 restaurant advertisements each year. These ads feature images of perfect-looking foods, carefully styled for the camera.
Advertisements use images to trigger the part of the brain that perceives taste, which activates our brain’s reward center to give us a little mental “taste” of a pleasurable dining experience.
This may also work against the food’s desirability, according to Hagen. These feelings may unconsciously prompt us to think of such foods as tasting too good to be good for us. Nonetheless, marketers generally view such advertising as effective.
If it is not the way that pretty food activates the brain’s reward center, the study asks, “May the alluringly good-looking pizza actually seem healthier to you, by virtue of its aesthetics?”
People, foods, and objects strike us as classically pretty when they possess certain attributes, such as symmetry and self-similar patterns, that we consider beautiful in nature.
Hagen cites the example of Fibonacci series-based “golden spiral” patterns that appear in the repeating arrangements of plant leaves. In the case of food, the study asserts that people tend to associate food with a nature-based attractiveness as being better for them.
Pretty food = more natural food = healthier food, says the study.
In this equation, our unconscious response to the prettiness of food may override our objective knowledge that nutritional value, or being low-fat or low-calorie, are not actually visible traits.
Hagen investigated her hypothesis in a series of experiments.
The first experiment involved tasking 803 participants with finding both “pretty” and “ugly” images of ice cream sundaes, burgers, pizza, sandwiches, lasagna, omelets, and salads. As expected, the participants rated the pretty versions of their foods as being healthier. They did not see tastiness, freshness, and portion size as influencing factors.
In another experiment, participants rated the healthiness of avocado toast. Before viewing images of the dish, individuals received information on the ingredients and price, which was identical for all of the examples.
Participants who saw images of “pretty” avocado toast rated it as being more natural and also healthier.
Prettiness did not affect perceived tastiness.
In another experiment that tested the effect of stimulus bias, Hagen presented 801 people with two identical images of a range of foods that varied in healthfulness levels. The foods were almond butter and banana toast, spaghetti marinara, and cupcakes. The researchers manipulated the participants to expect either a pretty or ugly image:
“This study is about PRETTY [UGLY] FOOD. The food in the image we will be showing you will be very pretty [ugly] … The foods will be orderly [disorderly], they will look symmetrical [lopsided], and the proportions will be balanced [unbalanced].”
Supporting the notion that attractiveness follows natural properties, individuals found the food was prettier when they were expecting an orderly, symmetrical, and balanced presentation in the image they viewed. Once again, the participants associated pretty foods with being more natural and more healthful.
To test the effect of attractiveness on purchasing behavior, Hagen asked 89 people if they would be willing to pay for either a pretty or an ugly bell pepper. Again, participants were more inclined to buy the better-looking pepper after judging it to be more natural- and healthful-looking. (They also expected it to taste better.)
Hagen also conducted a pair of online experiments using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, confirming that only classical prettiness characteristics affected perceptions of the attractiveness of food.
The study offers two marketing takeaways.
First, images of carefully styled foods in ads and on menus may promise more than enjoyable food. With fast-food in mind, Hagen writes: “This finding is disconcerting because a large proportion of visually advertised food is unhealth[ful] food.”
Second, the study suggests a way for advertisers to communicate the healthfulness of products more effectively by presenting images of deliberately styled foods to exhibit characteristics that qualify as classically pretty.