Simple changes to messages on restaurants’ menus can double the frequency of customers choosing plant-based options instead of meat, research on the impact of food on the climate crisis has found.
Climate scientists are now increasingly interested in the production, transportation, consumption, and use of food. A recent study has revealed that the food industry accounts for more than a third of the world’s total annual planet-heating emissions.
Meat is the main source of pollution. The emissions from raising cattle, chickens, and pigs for food, which often involves clearing large tracts forest, is about twice that of plant-based foods.
Meat consumption remains stubbornly high in the US – the average American gobbled down 2020: 264lb of meat – and is rising quickly in countries such as China.
Many people are open-minded to the idea of switching vegetarian options to help the environment. However research shows that messaging on restaurant menus can be a powerful way to shift behavior.
The multi-stage experiment was conducted by the non-profit research organization World Resources Institute (WRI). It involved approximately 6,000 people from the US and their reactions to the menu descriptions.
Researchers tested responses to 10 different sustainability-themed messages when the participants were asked to choose between different options on a menu, such as a bean burrito or beef burrito.
Many of the messages had dramatic results. Diners who read “Each of us can make a positive difference for the planet. Swapping one meat dish for a vegetable-based one reduces greenhouse gas emissions. This is equivalent to the energy you use to charge your phone every two years. Your small change can make a big difference” on their menus chose a vegetarian dish 25% of the time, more than double the rate of diners who were shown no message at all.
Another message – “90% of Americans are making the change to eat less meat. Join this growing movement and choose plant-based dishes that have less impact on the climate and are kinder to the planet” – prompted 22% of people to opt for a plant-based dish, again far higher than the standard group.
Other messages, about the taste of the food and the need to protect the planet for future generations, also yielded positive results in choosing vegetarian meals, suggesting that consumers’ choices can be significantly shaped by how menus are presented.
“We know behavioral science is critical, it really moves the needle,” said Edwina Hughes, head of the “cool food pledge”, an initiative by WRI and the United Nations. “Themes of making a small change for a big impact and also around joining a movement really boosted the plant-based options.”
Hughes said Americans were ready for a “nudge” towards vegetarian options, likening such messages to hotels requesting their guests not demand their towels to be replaced every day, as a way to save water needed to wash them.
“Using descriptive messages that show the benefits of plant-based food choices can empower people to change their behaviour and choose lower-carbon dishes,” Hughes said. “We can do this because people are primed and ready for this sort of messaging. They are receptive to seeing messages about the climate and are actively seeking out brands and logos that indicate climate-friendly products and services.”
WRI researchers stated that previous attempts at promoting vegetarian options had failed.
Dishes have functionally been named “vegetarian lasagne” or “meat-free sausages”, as compared with more enticing meat nomenclature such as “grass-fed beef” or “butter-fried chicken”.
When dishes are called vegan it “really turns off mainstream audiences. It comes across as preachy, righteous, aggressive,” said Jonathan Wise, A consumer researcher who added that more “inclusive” messages could get people to switch more easily to plant-based meals.
“We launched a falafel burger in 2009, we said it is organic and it’s for vegetarians – it never sold well and we shut it down,” said Kaj Torok, chief sustainability officer at Max Burgers, a fast-food company that originated in Sweden. “The main thing we thought was: ‘Let’s not just go for this tiny group.’ It was important to go for the flexitarians [people who can skip eating meat] and those people who want to reduce their impact upon the climate.”
Torok said Max Burgers’ focus was now taste, rather than whether what’s being served is meat or not, allowing it to drastically increase the number of plant-based burgers on menus.
The company is part of WRI’s Cool Food Meals scheme, which has seen several food producers, Include Panera Breadchain to disclose the carbon footprint for menu choices.
However, such labeling is not universal. Most people are unaware of the climate costs of the foods they eat. “The time should be here where we have third-party verification of this,” Torok said.