Why You Shouldn’t Put Fruit In Your Dessert

Few situations are more agonizing for a health-conscious eater than deciding what to do about dessert. Should you have any at all? How much? What should you have? The debate between the little biblical foes on your shoulders tends to be a multi-round affair.

Fortunately, the proprietors of trendy new dessert establishments have been working to make things easier. For example, not only do many frozen yogurt shops allow you to measure your consumption by serving yourself, the available toppings often include healthy options like nuts and fruit. But therein lies another problem. Though the buffet of fresh fruit that stands between you and the cashier may appear to be a kind-hearted nudge toward a healthy diet, a new study suggests it might as well be a diabolical ploy aimed at increasing your consumption of junk food.

The researchers, Ying Jiang and Jing Lei, reasoned that because people generally want to eat tasty (i.e. unhealthy) things, they’ll try to find a justification for doing so, and one strategy is using the presence of a healthy topping to convince yourself that the unhealthy “base” isn’t all that bad. Jiang and Lei hypothesized that adding a healthy topping would lead people to believe that an unhealthy food contained fewer calories. Conversely, a topping ought to have no effect if the base food was healthy, because there would be no need to justify eating it, or if the topping was unhealthy, because then it couldn’t be used for justification.

In two initial experiments participants were told about a healthy or an unhealthy “base” food (salad or non-fat froyo vs. chocolate cake or ice cream) that had either a healthy topping (fruit), an unhealthy topping (chocolate sauce, whipped cream, or ranch dressing), or no topping. As predicted, when an unhealthy food was topped with fruit participants estimated it had fewer calories than when it had no topping. It would seem the addition of a healthy topping made people think an unhealthy food was less unhealthy. And because people are likely to consume more of something when they think it’s healthier, the finding reflects rather poorly on fruit-topped desserts.

To further test the role of the desire to justify unhealthy eating, the researchers conducted a similar follow-up experiment, but this time one group of participants was asked to imagine they were celebrating an important accomplishment. The idea was that these participants would have an external justification for indulging themselves and thus wouldn’t feel a need to justify eating something unhealthy by fudging calorie estimations. Sure enough, the participants who were not given an external justification estimated that unhealthy foods with healthy toppings had significantly fewer calories than participants who had the external justification of celebrating an accomplishment.

But what about the question of whether these estimates influence actual behavior? In a final experiment the researchers brought participants into the lab under the ruse that they were participating in an experiment about TV advertisements. As participants watched a series of TV ads there was a plate of small chocolate pastries in front of them. One group was given standard pastries with no toppings, while a second group was given pastries with a slice of strawberry on top. When the 45 minutes of TV-watching had concluded, the group whose pastries had strawberries on top had consumed a significantly higher volume of food. Of course it’s possible the strawberry pastries were more appealing for non-health reasons, but the experiment does provide some evidence that healthy toppings have a real effect on behavior.

The study dovetails nicely with recent research on “moral licensing,” or the psychological tricks we pull to give ourselves permission to do things a part of us knows we shouldn’t be doing. For example, one recent study found that imagining an unhealthy behavior you successfully avoided can make you more likely to do something unhealthy in the future. Furthermore, when faced with temptation, people will exaggerate the “badness” of the behavior they avoided in order to make giving in to the temptation more palatable.

Studies have also shown that the actions of others can be used to justify bad behavior. For example, there is evidence that people are more likely to act in a prejudiced manner when they observe somebody in their group (e.g. same ethnicity, nationality, profession, etc.) act in a non-prejudiced manner. Your group members’ good behavior essentially earns you the right to be bad. Conversely, research also suggests that you’re more likely to engage in bad behavior when you observe somebody with whom you’re “psychologically close” also engage in bad behavior. Such an influence may seem rather pedestrian until you realize that you can feel psychologically close to somebody simply because they share your name or your birthday.

Seen in this light, misconceptions about dessert toppings are just another element in the growing bag of tricks we use to justify doing something that has obvious drawbacks. In the same way a TV burglar throws a steak to distract the guard dog, we unearth some loosely crafted justification in order to silence the thoughts that tell us we should know better.

Of course the specific lesson of the study, if you haven’t learned it already, is that it’s probably best to avoid trying to put lipstick on a pig when it come to unhealthy foods. Just as McDonald’s chicken smothered in ranch dressing doesn’t become healthy when you put it on a bed of iceberg lettuce, a half pound of frozen yogurt won’t be healthy no matter how many blueberries you put on top.
Jiang, Y., & Lei, J. (2013). The Effect of Food Toppings on Calorie Estimation and Consumption Journal of Consumer Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2013.06.003

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