From nutty bugs to candied veggies, does food by any other name taste as good?

Convincing people to eat plant-rich diets, avoid junk food and care about nutrition is seen as critical to global human health and tackling climate change.

candied fruit istanbul
Candied fruit in Istanbul, Turkey. Image: Atelier Teee, CC BY-SA 2.0 via IFPRI Flickr

From caramelised zucchini bites to candied crickets, scientists have come up with a foolproof way to encourage healthy eating - don’t call it healthy.

Convincing people to eat plant-rich diets, avoid junk food and care about nutrition is seen as critical to global human health and tackling climate change, which itself threatens droughts and extreme weather that disrupt food supplies.

For poor diet has now overtaken smoking as the world’s biggest killer, according to the latest Global Burden of Disease study, causing 20 per cent of deaths globally in 2017.

But behaviour and environmental sciences experts said coaxing rather than coercion helped to get people to eat better - and language was key to change habits along with tax incentives, posting calories and other more subtle approaches.

“You can’t just yell facts at people and say, ‘Here’s a graph, here’s a chart’,” said Kate Marvel, a scientist with the U.S. space agency NASA, where researchers study climate change and nutrition.

Words matter, and plant-based food options sell better when described as tasty and indulgent, said Sophie Attwood, senior behavioural scientist with the Better Buying Lab at London’s World Resources Institute, a global research organisation.

Using different names for the same foods, one study found “slow-roasted caramelised zucchini bites” sold far better than “lighter-choice zucchini”, and “twisted citrus-glazed carrots” outsold “carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing.”

“We can start to use the lessons from big brands and actually sell the alternatives in the same way,” Attwood said.

She pointed to the successful marketing of a low-calorie soda in Europe and Asia as Pepsi Max rather than Diet Pepsi.

“You want to ‘Pepsi-Max’ plant-based food,” she said.

If you don’t have a lot of vegetarians around, then telling people the norm is increasing can actually change the way people behave.

Shahzeen Attari, associate professor researching resource use, Indiana University Bloomington

“The flavour of nuts” 

Promoting insects as a healthy protein option, Paul Roge of Don Bugito, a San Francisco-based maker of chile-lime and chocolate-covered crickets and candy-coated meal worms, suggests comparing the bugs to more common items people eat.

“They have the flavor of nuts, so that’s helpful for people to associate them with nuts and seeds,” he said at a recent conference on climate and behavior change held by Rare, a U.S.-based conservation group.

“Also, they are sort of like shrimp or crayfish or even lobster,” he said.

Another tactic is appealing to the human urge to follow the herd, researchers said, pointing to a study into the use of hotel signs asking guests to conserve water by reusing towels.

Guests reading a sign saying “Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment” reused their towels at a much higher rate than those whose sign said “Help save the environment”, according to a 2008 study.

The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, was conducted by behavior and marketing researchers from the University of Minnesota, Arizona State University and the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

The effective signs used what is called a “dynamic norm” that portrayed a trend that is growing or changing, they said.

“If you don’t have a lot of vegetarians around, then telling people the norm is increasing can actually change the way people behave,” said Shahzeen Attari, an associate professor researching resource use at Indiana University Bloomington.

No meat burger 

Scientists said a “Planetary Health” diet that doubles consumption of nuts, fruits, vegetables and legumes, and halves meat and sugar intake, could help prevent more than 11 million premature deaths each year, according to a report published earlier this year in The Lancet health journal.

Greenhouse gas emissions would be cut and more land, water and biodiversity would be preserved, according to the three-year project that involved 37 specialists from 16 countries. It was funded by the Wellcome Trust, a British charity, and Oslo-based Stordalen Foundation that works on health and climate issues.

In a potential boost for plant-based alternatives, fast-food giant Burger King, owned by Restaurant Brands International, and startup company Impossible Foods are introducing a no-meat burger in stores in the U.S. Midwest.

U.S. retail sales of plant-based meat substitutes grew by more than 23 per cent last year to exceed $760 million, according to sales data analysed by The Good Food Institute, a non-profit promoting plant-based alternatives to animal products.

Katharine Wilkinson, vice president of communication and engagement at Drawdown, a coalition working against global warming, said what doesn’t work is shaming people or providing too much information, which can be paralysing.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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