Just changing the name of a dish can change our perception of a food’s nutritional value and taste, as well as the amount we consume. Health-conscious consumers seem to be more easily fooled by "healthy" food descriptions than those who don’t worry about counting calories.

Health-conscious consumers have become so attuned to food names and labels that they often overlook what it is they are eating.

Researchers from the University of South Carolina and Loyola University explored the impact of simply changing the name of a food to see how dieters and non-dieters evaluated the food. They found that health conscious eaters preferred foods with healthy-sounding names, while ignoring the ingredients.

In one experiment, consumers were given a mixture of vegetables, pasta, salami, and cheese served over a bed of romaine lettuce. When the dish was called a "salad special" it was rated pretty equally for healthfulness among both dieters and non-dieters, but when the name of the same dish was changed to"pasta special," the dieters downgraded the nutritional value while non-dieters basically stayed with their initial assessment of the dish.

In another experiment, participants were given Jelly Belly candies that were either labeled as fruit chews or candy chews. Dieters perceived the "candy chews" to be less healthy and consumed more of the "fruit chews" than the non-dieters did.

Health-conscious consumers have become so attuned to food names and labels that they often overlook what it is they are eating. A restaurant salad may contain foods that a dieter would normally avoid, such as meat, cheese, or pasta, but the word "salad" has a healthy connotation so it is assumed to be a healthy choice.

Savvy restaurants and food manufacturers who understand that health consciousness is increasing often give their products healthy-sounding names to encourage consumers to believe their nutritional value is better than it is. Foods like potato chips are called "veggie chips," milkshakes are labeled as "smoothies," and "flavored water" is often just another name for a sugary beverage.

The authors explained that dieters learn to focus on avoiding foods that they recognize as forbidden based on the name, but non-dieters do not so they are more likely to dismiss cues that imply healthfulness. It may be that dieters want to believe there is such a thing as a (calorie-) free lunch — that they can eat as much as they want of healthy-sounding foods.

Caglar Irmak, lead researcher in the study, suggested that food regulations should prevent companies from using healthy-sounding names to sell unhealthy products.

The research was published online April 12, 2011 in the Journal of Consumer Research.