How Food Labels Affect Veg Dish Preferences
From veggie burgers to nut milks, plant-based foods are rising in popularity. Some researchers argue that this is at least partly because of the growing awareness of the negative impacts of meat products on animals, health, and the environment. To describe meat-free foods, some producers use “meat-related” terminology — for example, “cauliflower steaks” — to indicate what animal products a dish is meant to replace.
Unfortunately, policy-makers in some countries are trying to argue against meat-based labeling for vegetarian dishes, claiming they confuse consumers. However, such labels can help consumers understand how to integrate vegetarian foods into their diet and how to use them as meat substitutes. Moreover, research has shown that labels that convey a food’s taste, texture, or the social context during which it can be consumed can increase people’s desire to eat it. Therefore, it is reasonable that providing meat-related labels for vegetarian dishes would make them more appealing for consumption.
In addition, some consumers might be unfamiliar with plant-based or vegetarian dishes. Providing a meat-related label can help them learn what to expect from the product. In fact, some studies have found that people typically prefer vegetarian alternatives that mimic the taste and texture of meat; using a meat-related label may provide this information more easily. If consumers do prefer meat-related labels on meat-free products, then policies that aim to ban them may turn consumers away — which is especially concerning given the harmful impacts of conventional meat products.
To better understand how meat-related labels affect people’s willingness to consume vegetarian dishes, a team of researchers performed two online questionnaire-based studies. They prepared two versions of food descriptions for six vegetarian dishes. One version used meat-related wording, such as “steak,” “burger,” or “meatballs,” while the other version used neutral terminologies, such as “slice,” “sandwich,” or “pieces.”
Furthermore, because studies have shown that men are less likely to reduce their meat consumption than women, the researchers assessed if gender affects someone’s willingness to consume vegetarian dishes based on food labels. They also noted that meat consumption is typically perceived as a traditional “masculine” trait, so they assessed whether gender role conformity affects label preferences.
The first study included 156 participants. Researchers randomly assigned three neutral and three meat-based food descriptions to each person and asked them to report their willingness to consume the dishes as well as other perceptions (for example, how filling, appetizing, and healthy each dish was perceived to be). The second study used nearly identical methods, except it included 394 participants, fixed the gender conformity measures to account for limitations in the first study, and asked people about their diet in order to compare omnivores with veg*ns and flexitarians.
Both studies showed that consumers were more willing to eat vegetarian dishes that had a meat-related description compared to foods with a neutral label. In the second study, omnivores were less likely to want to consume any of the dishes compared to people who follow other diets; however, they showed similar preferences for meat-related labels compared to other participants. Interestingly, participants of both studies found foods with meat-related labels more filling and higher in protein content compared to vegetarian dishes with neutral labels.
The authors were unable to find a gender effect (or gender role conformity effect) regarding labels in either study. In other words, one’s gender or conformity to traditional gender roles did not impact whether they would prefer one type of label over another.
The authors try to explain their findings by suggesting that meat-related terminology is more familiar to consumers than neutral terms, which could be why consumers prefer meat labels. In addition, consumers may find vegetarian dishes with meat names more appealing because they expect them to be more similar in taste and texture to meat. Regarding the gender results, the authors note to interpret them with caution: participants skewed relatively young, and they argue that younger people tend to have a less conservative view of gender roles. The results may have been different with an older sample.
The study suggests that for animal advocates and alternative meat producers, using meat-related labels for vegetarian foods — especially unfamiliar ones — is an important strategy to increase people’s willingness to eat them. This also means that banning the use of meat-related terms on non-meat products may discourage people from buying them. Given the urgency of encouraging meat reduction, animal advocates would be wise to continue pushing back on policies and lobbying efforts to restrict plant-based labels. One way of doing this is to gather evidence that such labels do not confuse consumers — fortunately, some of the existing data works in our favor.