LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — During the holiday season, making and eating food is an important element of celebrations for many. But the presentation of food might make consumers mistakenly believe it is healthier and more natural when it is actually not, according to a study by the University of Southern California.
Researchers with the USC Marshall School of Business said consumers see almost 7,000 food and restaurant ads annually, or about 19 per day on average.
“Marketers frequently style food to look pretty,” said Linda Hagen, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business.
She said that tactic skews perception. In a study involving 4,300 subjects, researchers asked people to look at pictures of food, as well as actual samples, and evaluate whether they were processed or unprocessed and healthy or unhealthy.
In the study, researchers told subjects ahead of time whether the photo they were about to see was beautiful or flawed. People looking at the same picture of avocado toast, for example, deemed the “beautiful” photo healthier and more natural and the flawed photo “less healthy.”
“In our minds, people associate aesthetic beauty with nature and natural things, which transfers to perceptions that pretty food is a healthy food, but people are often misled by the prettiness of food that’s not very good for you,” added Hagen.
Hagen added that advertisements for pleasing foods, especially in the multi-billion dollar fast food market, might have more influence over consumers than we think.
“Many food advertisements and restaurant menus may be suggesting greater levels of healthiness in food than is true,” Hagen said. “The use of aesthetics that misleads people warrants close consideration by policymakers.”