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Taste Trumps Health in Food Choices?

Anyone who makes a living selling food (or cooks for the family) already know this – the key drivers of deciding what to eat are taste, cost and convenience  (I often joke that for most people, health is number 27 on the list).

Thus, I was not really surprised to see the results of a recent paper by Suzanne Forwood and colleagues from the University of Cambridge, UK, published in PLoS One that examined what would make participants choose an apple over a chocolate bar.

The study involved 439 participants randomly allocated to one of five groups that varied in the label added to an apple (apple; healthy apple; succulent apple; healthy and succulent apple; succulent and healthy apple).

They also measured how the participants perceived the qualities of the apple (taste, health, value, quality, satiety) and assessed other participant characteristics (restraint, belief that tasty foods are unhealthy, BMI).

When compared with apple selection without any descriptor (50%), the labels combining both health and taste descriptors significantly increased selection of the apple (‘healthy & succulent’ 65.9% and ‘succulent & healthy’ 62.4%).

In contrast, simply calling the apple “healthy” or “succulent” was no different from not adding any descriptor at all.

Also no surprise that the strongest predictors of individual dessert choice were the taste score given to the apple, and the lack of belief that healthy foods are not tasty.

As the authors conclude,

“Interventions that emphasize the taste attributes of healthier foods are likely to be more effective at achieving healthier diets than those emphasizing health alone.”

In other words, don’t bother telling me how healthy a food is, just make it taste better .

Thus, it’s probably not that surprising that the bazillion dollars spent in public health and elsewhere on telling us how healthy this or the other food may be (or just how unhealthy some of the stuff we eat actually is) – seems to have so little impact.

Perhaps, this money is better spent on actually making healthy stuff taste better (or at least convincing me that it does).

So here’s a challenge to my readers: name one food that cannot be made to taste better by adding more sugar, salt and/or fat (my personal solution is – just add hot sauce!).

Edmonton, AB

p.s. Happy Halloween!

Photo by Massdistraction

ResearchBlogging.orgForwood SE, Walker AD, Hollands GJ, & Marteau TM (2013). Choosing between an Apple and a Chocolate Bar: the Impact of Health and Taste Labels. PloS one, 8 (10) PMID: 24155964




  1. Do I have to stop at one? Right now, enjoying a snack of seedless black grapes, which are perfect as is. I’d rather have just about any fresh fruit plain than with added sugar. Fresh tomatoes is another — never did like salt on them. Ruins the flavor. I always liked watermelon better without salt. Prefer my carrots without anything on them, too — sweet and tasty.

    I’m not afraid of sugar, fat and salt in my cooking, but I always think that excessive amounts make everything taste the same, and I’d rather taste the actual food. But then, I might just be an oddball.

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  2. If the label (and variety) had been Honeycrisp Apple, I would have picked it. If I thought it was a Red Delicious Apple – no label could get me to eat it.

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  3. Good dried Bing cherries are like little pieces of cherry pie all on their own! We wind up buying dried fruit in bulk. A little goes a long way.

    I am w you on hot sauce.

    One thing that often has unneeded added fat is turkey heroes or sandwiches. At least it is olive oil when done right, but a person can make a great turkey sandwich with pickled peppers, sliced onion, arugula, oregano, and whatever other veggies you might like. If the bread used is a soft whole grain then there is no need to add any fat. The olive oil is not needed. If a person wants to go a bit fattier then try a little avocado (a little goes a long way), arugula, and onion with the turkey and whole grain bread.

    Many of the low fat or non-fat canned “refries” are pretty tasteless but adding in things like cumin, lime juice, non-fat plain yogurt, onion, hot sauce, and whatever veggies you want makes a great bean concoction that works well as a veg dip or in wraps.

    Tuna salad can be made better by using some low fat mayo, plain yogurt taking the place of about half the mayo, celery, onion, apple, and horseradish. It not only is healthier but it tastes better.

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  4. BTW, there ARE brands of dried fruits without added sugar and the quality ones do not need it. Those are what we buy and why we buy bulk. Check labels.

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  5. I would say you can’t improve on the taste of fresh pineapple! In fact when it is canned with syrup, it totally ruins the taste.

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    • In India they sometimes add a small pinch of salt to pineapple – does make it taste a bit better and takes away the sting 🙂

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  6. Two last tricks for reducing fats and using safer ones is that a good balsamic vinegar can often salad make oils unneeded, and a good olive oil with garlic and parsley added can replace butter if bread is wanted with a meal.

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  7. How to make food taste better?… Be hungry when you eat.

    1. Used to be that snacking all day wasn’t acceptable. People ate 3 meals a day, and expected to be hungry before a meal.
    (My mom: “don’t eat now, you’ll spoil your dinner”)

    Now – every kids’ event has to have a snack. Adult meetings have donuts and coffee. Houses are open plan so you’re always in the kitchen, and designers brag about including special snack areas, even little fridges, where kids can get a snack any time.
    BBC documentary, I think it was called “The Men Who Made Us Fat”, YouTube, reported chocolate bar makers in the UK creating ads for giving kids “little” snacks, ads targeted at moms who before then didn’t give their kids chocolate bars just to get them through the day to dinner.

    2. Used to be that simple, routine meals were appreciated. Elaborate,

    Now – Food advertising, food promotion by cooking TV shows, restaurants, even nutritionists who stress extreme variety and exotic superfoods, means that people don’t just want ordinary good food, they want an exceptional food experience.
    And, they don’t want that exciting meal occasionally, for a special occasion, they want (and feel they deserve) a taste explosion everyday all day, from breakfast to the last evening treat.
    You don’t have to be a gourmet – frosted poptarts for breakfast, fancy hi-cal coffees, fast foods with fatty additions will offer more “taste sensations” than shredddies, coffee with milk, and a plain hamburger.

    If you’re trying to get people to eat more, whether you’re trying to feed an invalid or trying to get people to eat more at a restaurant, you serve a wide variety of tasty tempting food.

    Why does that matter? One finding by a US Registry of people who did lose and keep off excess weight found that a simple routine food plan, good nutrition with minimum fuss, was helpful to many people.

    Well, taste will trump health in food choices. Delicious and new foods are a sensual delight.
    Which is excellent, in the context of a controlled diet.
    As a non stop daily food experience, it’s a bottomless pit, a calorie consumption tsunami.

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  8. Doc, apples can be problematic. I normally and usually eat apples in season. Last year there was not much apple crop in Ontario due to early warm weather and freeze off. This year was great but not as it turned out for me.

    I was eating one or two apples per day for about 6 weeks. When the apple cleared out of the stomach I’d get waves of nausea lasting a few minutes. (acidic apples?) Then this crescendoed a few times with 10 seconds of super intense nausea, retching and then two sneezes which stopped everything. Vagal response.

    My doctor looked at me like I had a worm growing out of the middle of my forehead.

    I’d figured it out before I got in to see her. All blood tests normal. Now I’m cooking the apples and choosing less acidic varieties. No problem so far.

    So much for ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away.’ LOL!

    I did some reading around internetland and there are people who experience this horrible event on a daily basis for years!!! Probably not from apples but probably from the same sort of irritation.

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  9. I was with you right up until the end where you wrote: “name one food that cannot be made to taste better by adding more sugar, salt and/or fat”

    I’ve been going through a lot of studies, and as far as I can tell every study that has concluded that salt is bad for you is observational. For clinical studies, they’ve found that unless your salt is too low the amount of salt necessary to cause problems is astronomical. As best I can tell, as long as your salt is more than 2g and less than 8g per day, you are well in the safe range. Even higher than 8g the effects seem to be negligible until you get to toxic levels. Our body must maintain a specific concentration of salt to water, and if you look at the summer(for example) being active out in the heat our body can lose as much as a 4 litres of sweat in an hour, and there is about 800mg of salt per litre of sweat… And our body cannot manufacture sweat. If you are outside in the heat but not overly active it may be as low as 1-2 litres… that is still about 1g-2g/hour.

    Regarding fat, any study which shows that fat is a problem is either observational or is referring to a fat that is either hydrogenated or requires a solvent to extract. I would love to see clinical studies that actually show that fat is bad, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t exist. If you look at the actual data from the studies it appears that high fat, low carbohydrate diets reduce all risk factors for atherosclerosis, cause weight loss(including one study I read where people were losing weight consuming >10,000 calories of fat per day), and reduce or eliminate symptoms for a whole host of other problems…

    Lumping fat and salt in with sugar seems very strange to me.

    As for apple vs. chocolate, it depends on the chocolate. If you are talking about a 90+% dark chocolate without hydrogenated oils, I would take the chocolate over the apple. If you are talking about a Caramilk Bar, I would take the apple… In any case, all 3 of those would probably be last pick or occasional treats as far as I am concerned.

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  10. can’t edit, but should say our body cannot manufacture salt. sorry for the typo.

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  11. The trouble is not that whole, unprocessed foods do not taste good, it is that we train our tastebuds to like foods that include extra sweeteners. Your call to scientists to make natural foods taste better is a fallacy and a trap. Scientists have been doing that for years, which has resulted in fruits and vegetables on the market that contain much more sugar and much less fibre. Which means an increase in calories and in diabetes risk. Not a good thing.

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  12. Well, part of it is not training.

    Until recent centuries salt, sucrose sugar, and most saturated fats were actually very hard to obtain for anyone who was not wealthy, and as a result were eaten in smaller amounts.

    Before agriculture humans were in the same position as most mammals and those foods were rare and important dietary additions, and that includes with hunting. Hunter-gatherers in most of the world are actually more accurately referred to as Gather-hunters because their diet is about 75% of Calories from vegetable matter including wild whole grains (which tend to have more chaff compared to core than the North American more popular current whole agricultural grains). Also, most of the year most hunted animals have very low body fat percentages. There are a few exceptions, such as among some extreme northern populations.

    For sucrose most relied on honey and given the risks involved, even with smoke used, it was not a daily or even weekly indulgence. Sugar cane is a very recent dietary addition for most humans.

    Complex carbs have a far longer history in humans as evidenced by our grinding molars and very possibly by the Theropithecus Complex which is a suite if physical characteristics including additional features of types of primates which spend much of a day on rumps picking and eating small grain seeds, including padded rear ends compared to most primates and upper body frontal sexual attractants again compared to most primates.

    Fruit history goes back even further and accounts for incisors ideal for biting into fruit and scooping in the fruit flesh. In fact, for most people our canines are now incisor form.

    Canine is just a dental position between the incisors and premolars — with premolars called bicuspids by dentists due to their form in humans — with a name the confuses too many. Long canines in many mammals, including even some antelopes, have nothing to do w hunting but more with other functions and the presence of canines says nothing about meat consumption.

    The main dental change related to adaption for meat consumption in members of Order Carnivora is the Carnassials which are modifications of their final premolars and molars for slicing. In many the canines are not only long but shaped in a way that they create + shaped tears then as the mouth closes the short incisors (also useful for grooming) scoop along the tears, joining them and lifting off the skin in a quadrangle. Obviously, human teeth differ from those modifications.

    Salt had to be transported to many locations, and was a costly enough addition to food, though definitely important if levels get too low or in some cases of adrenocortical malfunction, or…

    In relation to salt, there still are those w existing circulatory hypertension who improve w salt reduction.

    For fats, there is the caloric component.

    Fats are hard to digest, BTW, which is why they slow digestion at the small intestine. Too much simply can not be digested and can cause diarrhea. They also can set off gall bladder attacks in those w gall stones.

    Not all fats are equal. Two examples: oils high in monosaturated percentages (oils being a natural mixture) such as olive oil or peanut oil are vastly safer for human bodies than fats high in saturated fats and even than polyunsaturated oils, omega 3 fatty acids can be protective for kidneys.

    That said, too much is simply very so very unbalanced nutritionally for anyone not living exposed in extremely low temperatures, that it is a poor choice.

    We crave these foods — salts, fats, and sugars — because ancestrally most humans went went through annual cycles of plenty followed by times of hunger, and these were items that usually were not found or not found in high amounts for much of the year for most people. Our ancestors for most of human history usually had short and very active lives. Because of the times of famine such as winters and dry seasons and flooded seasons –depending on region — many populations still genetically put on fat faster and lose it with more difficulty than those whose ancestry had sufficient food available most of the time.

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  13. Ms. Crandall, in re: salt: humans and animals have been finding salt licks forever. It’s an important part of their existence. There are caves in India where animals have worn down deep paths on their way to and from these caves. Anyone who has kept animals like horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, knows that providing salt blocks to the animals is important. So I take exception to any statement that humans don’t need salt. They do because they sweat it out. Of course not as much as what is added to processed foods.

    It has now been established that reducing salt intake in the vast majority of people has zero effect on blood pressure. Only about 2% of the population is salt sensitive. Reducing salt past a certain point is actually detrimental to survival. You are referencing to old information.

    Natural animal fat is saturated fat. That’s what the hunter gatherers ate. They didn’t eat peanut oil or olive oil. Seed oils are unstable. They get rancid relatively quickly and that’s not good. So why recommend them when there is absolutely no proof that they enhance health preferably to sat fat? You’ll need to update your knowledge base.

    In addition, the diets of people prior to grain consumption did include starchy bulbs of water plants and possibly the seeds of chenopodia but not the seeds of grass plants. So molar teeth of humans are designed for an omnivorous diet not a plant based diet. If you look at the molar teeth of ungulates, these things grow throughout life to accommodate the wear caused by plant consumption. Human teeth don’t do that.

    In a well developed dental arch, the purpose of the canines is to prevent the sort of side to side grinding which ungulates do in order to masticate their food. So the canines do have an important function. They protect the back teeth from excess wear.

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  14. Well, actually, my background is in primatology/ physical anthropology so plenty of biology, anatomy, paleontology, etc. Ancestral diets and dentition play a large part. Teeth fossilize and survive in that form extremely well.

    Those foods — sucrose sugars, salts, and fats — are craved specifically because for many mammals they are more rare. For most of our history for most populations that was also true.

    The grinding molars of ancient hominids indicate a very long history of wild grain consumption, long predating Homo sapiens. Grains are NOT a recent introduction by any measure.

    Oils of various types are found incorporated in multiple plant origin foods. Fats by source are somewhat complex in that each is a combination of fat types, but in varying percentages.

    If you look at the useable fat percentages in wild game, which are usually much lower than in most agricultural animal food types, with a few exceptions like bison and rabbit, and then also take into account that in Gatherer-hunter populations (the more accurate term for most populations except for a few extreme northern ones) Kcals from hunting typically are only about 25% of food consumption, the final result is that the craved saturated fat was for most of human ancestry far less of a component of the diet than now.

    Yes, the new data on salt is intriguing, but until it is known that a given individual with hypertension is not personally salt sensitive it does not hurt to take precautions — if the individual is not low in sodium or does not have problems creating certain adrenal cortex products controlling electrolyte balance — since so few people in the industrialized world get too little of table salt. Of course, there are other salts involving other ions… Yes, being too low in sodium is definitely dangerous as is having the sodium/potassium ratio out of whack. The former is rare in the industrialized world.

    BTW, what is popularly called a paleodiet in actually in many ways is not.

    Hope that clarifies.

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  15. I thought that these refs with various perspectives on ancestral grain (grass seed) dietary components might be of interest for all, but especially for Dr. Sharma as well as for Dr. Kadar who obviously also has an interest in teeth and the stories they tell, though from a different vantage point and educational background. These look at ancestral diet in comparisons with other primates and therefore are useful in a very different way from just modern human dental work:

    Each of these first three is about a recent isotope study (so if one does not work…):
    (some refs at bottom)

    popular press but not the standard pop press:

    BTW, in relation to the meats: I have never had rabbit but have read a bit on it in relation to low useable fat content including the meat sold in markets. Agricultural bison is lower than agricultural beef in saturated fat and more strongly flavored, and to my taste far tastier than beef though more chewy. There also are hybrids between bison and cattle sometimes sold under terms like beefalo.

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  16. Ms Crandall, I have not referenced paleo diet anywhere. Since people around the world ate whatever was available to them, there is really no such thing as The Paleo Diet. The versions being touted by various people on the internet are fantasy as far as I’m concerned and probably also as far as you are concerned as well.

    A while back I saw an interesting video on the preparation of pemmican. Dried moose meat was pounded to powder and then added to melted bear fat. I guess we need to consider that bear was also an important source of nutrition for Native peoples. All across Eurasia and North America the bear was a very important animal and as you know there were bear cults everywhere probably because it was an important source of dietary fat.

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