Photograph by Kent Manning, Creative Commons 2.0
Photograph by Kent Manning, Creative Commons 2.0

How iPads Change Your Palate

And you thought the iPad was just a tool to cook and eat the things you’ve always liked.

Now studies show the power of the tablet to change palates by expanding what people are willing to try. When eaters use technology with food, we are simply more likely to eat new things.

The convenience store Sheetz unveiled espresso drinks in areas where such drinks were unfamiliar, and customers weren’t buying. The company then presented the new drinks prominently on an electronic ordering screen, with descriptors to make the drinks seem more familiar and desirable. The words used presented the drink as special but also demystified it and, as any parent who has gotten a toddler to eat broccoli by calling them “dinosaur trees” knows, names matter.

With the debate over school lunch reform and many school districts claiming they can’t get kids to eat the more healthful lunches mandated by new regulations supported by Michele Obama, this one element (ironically, marketing) hasn’t received enough ink.

We’ve all seen it happen, a kid sees a commercial and suddenly demands a product. Has to have it. For decades we in public health have been talking about using that weapon to encourage people to act in healthier ways, not just ways that thicken companies’ wallets.

Mrs. Obama herself has said, “when we put as much creativity and energy into marketing healthy products as we do for junk food, then kids actually get excited about these products.” Conventional wisdom states that the roadblock is money—health campaigns just don’t have the dollars to spend on advertising.

But Sheetz’s simple experiment reveals that by using tablets, descriptors can be easily changed to discover what words encourage healthy eating. That can be accomplished for kids by moving tablets from classrooms to cafeterias during lunch period and drumming up a few fabulous descriptions. It can be accomplished for adults by creating several menus for yourself and seeing which one over the course of the year gets more produce into your diet.

Another important takeaway: Sheetz took care to name the espresso drinks, and names matter. Brian Wansink’s wildly interesting 2006 book Mindless Eating described research that “Grandma’s homemade chocolate pudding” was anticipated as more flavorful than just “chocolate pudding.”

Tablets enable businesses to rotate descriptors to see which words best sell a product like pudding, and schools can too. In 2012 research, Wansink showed that when labeled as “X-Ray Vision Carrots,” 66 percent of carrots were eaten, as compared with 32 percent when labeled simply as “Food of the Day” and 35 percent when unnamed. In one school, consumption of attractively named vegetables rose by 99 percent.

Mere placement of salads or vegetable pizza toppings at the top of a screen could encourage people to consume more produce. And because tablets enable marketers to easily monitor descriptors’ effectiveness, the immediate feedback allows quick changes to be made to promote healthy eating.

The health downside is that online ordering often results in consuming higher quantities of food than traditional ordering, because the eater can view the entire menu on a screen at once, including items a customer may not have considered otherwise. But if that fact can be used in conjunction with attractive adjectives to prompt greater consumption of vegetables, it’s not so bad.

Just using an iPad can change the way you eat. It turns out America’s schools could learn a shocking amount from a convenience store.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.