Why Looks Aren't Everything with Healthy Food

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The art of food photography is all about science. Bowls of cereal in real milk get soggy, for example, so advertisers use glue to make their photos pretty. Obviously we're more likely to choose the attractive-looking food than the one without special treatment, but that's not the only decision we make with our eyes instead of our stomachs.

Researchers from the University of Southern California have just released a study showing that consumers actually think that prettier food is healthier. This isn't just about distinguishing between a piece of fruit with a uniform skin and one with bruises or holes; we explicitly link "beautiful" food with the concept of nature, and things that are natural are (we believe) obviously better for us.

Aesthetics, however, are not the same thing as nutrition. "Consumers expect food to be more nutritious, less fatty and contain fewer calories when it looks pretty," said study author Linda Hagen. It's one reason we'll pay more for it. The perception extends past fruits and vegetables, though, to prepared dishes like pasta, avocado toast, and even cakes and pastries.

Some marketers are trying to subvert this expectation by pushing the concept of "ugly produce," but buying misshapen tomatoes or weird-looking eggplant doesn't solve as many problems as it suggests. That said, it will help all of us if we learn to uncouple looks from taste and benefits. Keep that in mind at the grocery store, in restaurants, and in specialty food shops — if you focus on the right things, it could even save you some money on the bill.