Fake junk foods like sweet-potato toast and zucchini-noodle pasta are little more than elaborate lies in the name of dieting or, simply, eating more vegetables. Masquerading healthy foods as unhealthy ones is not only problematic in terms of moralizing what we eat, but it turns out that this mental gymnastics could backfire from a caloric perspective.
Kathleen Keller, a professor of nutritional sciences and food science at Penn State University, told The Atlantic that fake junk foods could lead to the Snackwell effect, or the phenomenon of people eating as much as 35 percent more of a food when it’s marketed as healthy (i.e., nonfat or low-calorie cookies) than they would eat of the real thing.
Of course, processed diet foods are often higher in sugar to make up for the reduced fat content, and zucchini only has natural sugars. But Keller pointed out that people might overdo it in other ways because they’ve made a seemingly virtuous decision.
“In the past when we’ve tried to substitute healthier versions for the real thing, that ends up backfiring because people just think, ‘Well, I ate these really healthy noodles so I can put a really rich sauce on them,’” she said. A sauce that they may not have normally eaten. And in a huge bowl. And also have an extra snack later that day.
And by referring to any kind of vegetable noodle as “pasta,” you’re suggesting to your brain a certain amount of calories and a reward factor when it will get neither, unless you really go to town. If you don’t, perhaps your brain will go searching for calories afterward.
Keller argues that zoodles “shouldn’t necessarily be pitched as pasta, but they might be pitched as a really creative way to eat these vegetables.” Something tells me that the food bloggers would be horrified.