In a first-of-its-kind experiment, Linda Bacon, a graduate student in behavioural science,
tested whether placing plant-based dishes in a separate vegetarian section on restaurant menus influenced ordering. The study’s findings have important implications for how the food industry might move more people to eat healthier and more sustainably, and may just change how we talk about plant-based foods.
World Resources Institute (WRI) advised the study and spoke to Linda Bacon about her findings.
WRI: We know that many people want to eat food that’s good for the environment, but people’s consumption of plant-based foods – typically the most sustainable food type – is relatively low. Why is this?
Linda Bacon (LB): Having spent 25 years in the food industry, I can tell you that, despite our very best intentions, as consumers we don’t always make the buying decisions we wish we would. Our brains are often too busy or distracted to fully evaluate what we should eat. We can be unconsciously influenced by many factors, including what we notice first, how attractively a product is described or displayed and social norms. The environment around us can have a real impact on our behaviour.
Understanding that, I wanted to determine if current positioning of plant-based foods as “vegetarian” on menus helps or hinders the ordering of these dishes.
WRI: How was the study set up, and what did you find?
We took a menu that contained eight main course dishes, of which two were plant-based: risotto primavera and ricotta and spinach ravioli. We created four different versions of the menu and tested them on 750 adults in the United Kingdom who usually eat meat and/or fish. Using an online survey, each person was shown one menu version, allocated at random, and asked to choose what dish they would select if they were in a restaurant having dinner with friends.
In the “control” version of the menu, the dishes were all formatted in the same way in a single list, with the plant-based dishes first and last. We compared this with a version in which the two plant-based dishes were placed together at the bottom of the menu, in a separate section under a line, and with the heading “Vegetarian Dishes.”
The key finding is that those diners who received the menu with the plant-based dishes in a vegetarian section were 56 percent less likely to order those dishes. In fact, only 5.9 percent of the people who received the vegetarian section menu chose a plant-based dish, compared to 13.4 percent of those who received the control menu.
DV: What is it about the term vegetarian that could have reduced preference?
LB: The problem with putting some dishes into a separate vegetarian section of the menu is that it highlights the lack of meat or fish, and makes these choices look exclusive to a certain group. Our study’s participants may have seen this section of the menu and automatically thought it wasn’t relevant to them. Those who don’t identify as vegetarian, which is most people, might see a vegetarian section as for someone else and ignore the dishes listed there.
Having a vegetarian menu section may also prime people with negative associations about vegetarian food. For example, some people may think it is less tasty or nutritious, and men may be influenced by the association between meat-eating and masculinity.
The original article appeared here.