There are countless studies and reports that make the case for reduced meat consumption for a wide range of reasons. The stubborn obesity epidemic, the meat industry’s impact on climate change and the environment, as well as concerns over animal welfare all contribute to the growing interest in plant-based diets. To their credit, some meat industry leaders are striving to make the sector more sustainable; at the same time, better meat alternatives such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are gaining traction.
Nevertheless, changes in habits and behavior are also needed to encourage people to eat more vegetables and plant-based proteins, and at a minimum take an occasional break from meat. That’s the best path to feeding the 9 billion people expected to live on this planet by 2050.
On that point, two recent studies suggest that boosting the consumption of meat alternatives and vegetables does not necessarily mean people must be subjected to the reciting of climate change facts, land use statistics and doomsday scenarios. In fact, subliminal messaging, or even more vibrant descriptions of food, could nudge the meat-and-potatoes crowd to explore meals without animal protein.
The first study was led by Linda Bacon, a graduate student in behavioral studies at the London School of Economics (LSE). Bacon conducted an online experiment involving the participation of 750 people who normally eat meat and fish on a regular basis. They were instructed to imagine that they were having dinner with a friend and to select a main course from a menu randomly assigned to them. All the menus included the same eight meat, fish and vegetarian options, but they all had various layouts. Three menu designs were tested against a “control” menu; all of the eight dishes were described in relatively simple terms.
The results? The diners who received menus with the plant-based dished tucked into a “vegetarian section,” typical at many restaurants, were 56 percent less likely to order those dishes. In contrast, vegetarian dishes that were described as the “Chef’s Recommendation” or touted as “fresh” or “seasonal” had almost no effect in persuading the study’s test subjects to select a plant-based dinner.
“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,” explained Bacon in an interview with the World Resources Institute (WRI). “Our study’s participants may have seen this section of the menu and automatically thought it wasn’t relevant to them.”
To many vegetarians and vegans, this finding should not be surprising. Nobody likes to be treated as the “other” or “different,” nor do they want their lifestyle choices to be pigeon-holed or even seen as stigmatized. And omnivores will reply that they may not even glance at a vegetarian section of a menu. Bacon told WRI she would like to see these types of studies applied in more real-life settings, as in cafeterias or restaurants.
The other study, published this spring in JAMA Internal Medicine, concluded that vegetables on a menu may just need a linguistic makeover. Stanford University researchers studied the choices of almost 28,000 diners at a large university cafeteria. Every day during last fall’s academic quarter, at least one featured vegetable was described in one of four ways: basic, healthy restrictive, healthy positive or “indulgent.” The result was that diners were far more likely to choose the “indulgent” vegetable; in fact, they were 41 percent more inclined to make such a choice over the “healthy restrictive” option even when the dishes were exactly the same.
Forget some Americans’ proclivity to use French phrases such as haricots verts or pommes frites; human nature dictates that anyone with a pulse would salivate over indulgent “dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets” over “anti-oxidant beets” or “lighter choice beets with no added sugar.” On the other hand, who would not be tantalized by terms such as “caramelized,” “twisted,” “twice-cooked” or “zesty” . . . as those beat out “low-sodium,” “cholesterol free” or “wholesome.” The former options make one’s fingers twitchy to send a Snap or make an Instagram post, while the latter choices imply the diner is a step or shuffle away from moving into an assisted living facility.
Both the LSE and Stanford studies build upon the obvious: we know that vegetables are good for us, but a little branding or a few psychological can convince more of us that healthy eating can be decadent, not dull and depriving. In the meantime, the planet, and public health, could both benefit.
Image credit: Kelly Sue DeConnick/Flickr