Do we assume pretty food is more healthful?
Written by Robby Berman on November 17, 2020 — Fact checked by Hannah Flynn, MS
According to a recent study, whether it’s avocado toast or cupcakes, we expect attractive food to be better for us.
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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.
What makes food pretty
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.