Lentil Loaf? Yuck! Increasing the Appeal of Plant-Based Dishes
At the last business conference I attended, I had pre-ordered a vegan meal for the group luncheon in the ballroom. I told everyone else to start eating while I waited for my entrée. When it finally came, I looked at the unseasoned slab of tofu with grill marks on it, and my spirits dropped. While I could and would eat it, I silently cringed at what others at my table might have been thinking. “Is that what vegans eat?” “That doesn’t look good at all.” “I’ll never order a vegan lunch, that’s for sure.”
While vegetarians and vegans make up less than 10% of the U.S. population, interest in eating less meat is on the rise. Making plant-based food that’s appealing to newly veg-curious folks, reducetarians, or flexitarians is not a no-brainer. Many dishes turn people off. Food service companies, restaurants, caterers, and individual cooks would do well to apply some basic research-backed principles to increase the chances of pleasantly surprising rather than repulsing omnivores who are open to reducing their meat consumption.
In the last few decades, a growing body of research has explored the psychology of food choices, food preferences, food appeal, pleasure, and satisfaction. Although most of the studies do not specifically target plant-based dishes, many of the findings are relevant to the challenge of making plant-based dishes appealing to those who are curious but likely still ambivalent about giving up meat.
In this post I’ll cover three main areas of findings from research, describe the most germane studies, and suggest how their results can be applied.
The Name Of The Dish Matters
Many research studies provide substantial evidence that food descriptors have a significant impact on how much someone will like a dish. In one study, a team of researchers from Stanford used their university cafeteria to test whether labeling vegetables with exciting and indulgent names could increase vegetable consumption.
They offered a variety of vegetable dishes in a rotating pattern over the course of about ten weeks. Sometimes the dishes had generic names, like “Beets” or “Bok Choy and Mushrooms.” Sometimes the same dishes had more exciting names, like “Dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets” and “Tangy ginger bok choy and banzai shiitake mushrooms.”
The results were dramatic. 25% more people selected the vegetable on indulgent-label days compared to the days when the vegetables had generic labels. Similarly, labeling vegetables indulgently resulted in a 23% increase in the actual amount of vegetables consumed compared to when the dishes had generic names.
A number of studies have attempted to uncover the reasons why the name of the dish matters so much. Many have found a major source to be most people’s deep-seated bias against “healthy” food. Through meticulous experiments, researchers have discovered that if the name of a dish sounds healthy, people will, on average, rate the tastiness lower than if they are led to believe it’s not healthy.
In one study of this phenomenon in the 1990s, one group of participants was given a sample of yogurt labeled “full-fat,” and another group was given a sample labeled “low-fat.” In fact, they were all given exactly the same type of yogurt. Those who ate the supposed “high-fat” yogurt rated its tastiness at 6.75 on a 1-10 scale (1 = strong dislike; 10 = strong liking). Those who ate the so-called “low-fat” yogurt rated it 5.65 on the same scale. Similar results have emerged from studies involving crackers, pound cake, cheese, cheese sandwiches, and, in one study, over a dozen entrees and desserts.
One of these studies actually surveyed participants about their beliefs about healthy food and thus identified those who expressed the belief that healthy food is not necessarily unappealing. Even these “unbiased” people, in an experiment that asked them to predict the tastiness of crackers with “bad” (saturated) fat and crackers with “good” (unsaturated) fat, anticipated, on average, that the bad-fat crackers would taste better. The researchers found, over the course of four experiments, that the less healthy a food item is portrayed to be, the better people will expect it to taste, the more it’s enjoyed during actual consumption, and the more it is chosen over other foods when people are given a choice of what to eat.
Other studies have peeled back this apparent instinctive preference for unhealthy food even further. A team from the University of Chicago found that participants who were told they were eating “a tasty chocolate bar” were less hungry afterwards than those who ate the same bar but were told it was “a health bar.” Still another study tracked the levels of the gut peptide gherlin (the hormone released when the stomach is empty, telling the brain that the body is hungry). Participants who drank a so-called “low fat” and “sensible” milkshake had, on average, higher gherlin levels after drinking than those who drank the milkshake labeled “high fat” and “indulgent.” (They all received the same milkshake.) The researchers concluded that subtle changes in mindset can influence the release of gherlin and make people feel hungry.
Since we know that many omnivores already consider plant-based food lacking in vital nutrients and not filling enough, it is important to signal with the name of the dish that the food will be pleasurable and satisfying. Names like “Brown Rice and Tofu Casserole” and “No-Oil Cabbage Salad” will likely turn on the “too healthy” or “not tasty” alarm for many. “Garden Vegetables with Creamy Rice” and “Crunchy Chinese Salad with Peanut Dressing,” on the other hand, can signal tastiness and satisfaction.
Attractive Food Is Judged To Be Tastier
Even before people started Instagramming every restaurant meal they ate, professional chefs took time and care to make their dishes visually attractive—through plating arrangements, sauce placements, garnishes, and final drizzles of oil or flecks of seasonings.
Research has begun to quantify the difference in appeal that attractiveness can make. In one study, led by a researcher from Montclair State, subjects were served a meal consisting of a sautéed chicken breast with a fine herb sauce, brown rice pilaf, and sautéed green beans with toasted almonds. Some participants got the meal in a traditional arrangement, while others received their food in a more contemporary arrangement. Participants were asked how much they liked the meal. The diners receiving the contemporary presentation rated their liking for the meal at, on average, 77.2 on a -100 to +100 point scale. An average rating of 67.6 was given by diners receiving the traditional presentation.
A team led by an Oxford professor conducted perhaps the ultimate test of artistic presentation. The dish under consideration consisted of a relatively complex salad with 17 distinct components. It was arranged three different ways with the same quantity of the same ingredients. The “regular” presentation consisted of the vegetables and sauces tossed together and placed in the middle of the plate. In the “neat” presentation, the vegetables and sauces were placed side by side without touching each another. Lastly, for the “art-inspired” presentation, the ingredients were placed on the plate in a very specific manner, inspired by Wassily Kandinsky’s “Painting #201.”
The expected tastiness of the food appeared to be significantly affected by the presentation. The Kandinsky-inspired dish was rated 7.5 on a 10-point scale of how much the participants expected to like it. The regular presentation was rated 5.8, and the neat presentation received an average rating of 5.4. Interestingly, eating the dish led to an increase in tastiness ratings for the art-inspired dish, whereas tastiness ratings for the regular presentation went down after eating and ratings for the neat presentation stayed about the same.
The researchers in this study refer to several non-food-related studies that have shown that looking at art can activate reward systems in the human brain. The researchers here speculate that, essentially, the art-appreciation part of the brain influences the food-appreciation part of the brain, and, thus, food that looks pleasing can trigger an expectation of pleasing taste, and we know from many other research studies that one’s expected liking of a dish is usually validated after tasting it—or, more precisely, one’s expectation appears to influence significantly one’s perception of liking or disliking after tasting.
Cooks who make plant-based food for omnivores would do well to use techniques from professional chefs’ repertoires: garnishes, pretty serving dishes, and novel plating and presentation techniques. The old saying “We eat with our eyes first” now has objective data behind it.
Use Meat Substitutes with Care
When cooking for omnivores, we often have the instinct to meet them halfway and make or buy meat substitutes. If they like meat, we reason, it’s likely they’ll appreciate something that’s like meat. In many cases this approach backfires, and omnivores reject the meat substitute, sometimes loudly. Research findings can help guide the use of meat substitutes so that these situations can be avoided.
The Humane League did a major study a few years ago with approximately 800 omnivore participants. The goal of the study was to figure out which vegan dishes omnivores find most appealing. The researchers used photos of 21 vegan dishes, some with meat substitutes, some without. They had each participant rate a subset of the dishes on how appealing they looked.
The lowest-rated, least appealing dishes all involved meat substitutes (including tofu).
- Vegetarian “roast beef” sandwich
- Tofu scramble
- Vegan sausage
- Vegetarian “chicken” platter
- Fried tofu with broccoli
Veggie burgers and vegetarian chicken nuggets fared better, but most meat substitutes scored near the bottom.
The top-rated, most appealing dishes were familiar foods that contained no meat substitutes.
- Roasted potatoes
- Pasta with tomato sauce
- Garden salad
- Rice and beans
- Vegetable lo mein
The Humane League undertook their study to help animal organizations decide on food photos to use in brochures and on websites, but the application to cooking for omnivores is straightforward.
A team from the Netherlands embarked on a project that delved deeper into the issue of the appeal of meat substitutes to omnivores. They were interested in exploring the impact of the “meal context” on the acceptance of meat substitutes. They ran a study with five different brands of meat substitutes. They served the meat substitutes minced in some dishes and in larger pieces in others. They also had the participants judge the meat substitutes on their own.
Some meat substitutes, when tasted on their own, scored much higher on “similarity to meat” than others. However, when the substitutes were eaten in the context of a dish, the differences in liking basically disappeared. The researchers found that the shape and appearance of the meat substitute were more important than the flavor and texture. The most salient variable for liking a meat substitute was whether the participant thought it fit with the dish or not. For example, having a spaghetti sauce with minced meat is very common in the Netherlands, and, indeed, participants thought the minced meat substitute was more than larger pieces appropriate in the spaghetti dish. The opposite was true for the rice and curry dish; larger pieces were better liked there.
The authors referred to several other studies that have shown that the acceptance of an unfamiliar food is influenced by how it relates to or is served with familiar foods that are already part of a person’s diet. Seasonings or sauces with familiar flavors have been shown to increase the liking and the willingness to taste unfamiliar foods.
These and other studies point to the need for cautious use of meat substitutes when cooking for omnivores, unless you know you have an omnivore who is open to trying lots of new foods. A slab of tofu in the middle of a plate, even grilled, liked the one at my business conference, will likely face rejection from most omnivores. But that same tofu, cut small and included in a tasty vegetable stir fry, might have an excellent chance of acceptance. Cooked, grated, and camouflaged tempeh stirred into a pan of baked Thanksgiving stuffing will much more likely be eaten than a slice of Tofurky by a person new to plant-based eating.
Those who consider their own plant-based cooking a form of activism, as I do, and those who are part of the food or restaurant industry hoping to get more people to eat plant-based meals would do well to learn from the growing body of research that can help us make plant-based food as appealing as possible.
Taking a little extra time to decide on the name of the dish, so it doesn’t sound too healthy, will help lower people’s implicit bias against food that might not give them pleasure and satisfaction. Making the food as pretty as possible with some extra care before serving can pay off by activating eaters’ visual reward system and whetting their appetite. Planning meals that minimize hunks of meat substitutes and accentuate familiar flavors, sauces, and cuisines can lower barriers to acceptance of a meal without meat.
My omnivore husband, a very picky eater who eats vegan dinners with me (because he doesn’t cook), said in reaction to a new offering one night, “I would like this [dish] more if I didn’t have to look at it.” After a quiet sigh, I reminded myself that eating is complicated, personal, with layers of conscious and sub-conscious urges at play. Tomorrow would be another day, and I would give it a go with another plant-based dinner.
 Naughty but nice: a laboratory study of health information and food preferences in a community sample. Health Psychology 13.2 (1994): 180-183.
 Antecedents and consequences of expectations related to fat-free and regular-fat foods. Appetite, 23.3 (1994): 247-263; How diet and health labels influence taste and satiation. Journal of food science 69.9 (2004): S340-S346.
 The Unhealthy = Tasty Intuition and Its Effects on Taste Inferences, Enjoyment, and Choice of Food Products. Journal of Marketing: October 2006, Vol. 70, No. 4, pp. 170-184.
 When healthy food makes you hungry. Journal of Consumer Research 37.3 (2010): 357-367.
 Mind over milkshakes: mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response. Health Psychology 30, no. 4 (2011): 424-429.
 It tastes as good as it looks! The effect of food presentation on liking for the flavor of food. Appetite 77 (2014): 31-35.
 Consumer acceptance and appropriateness of meat substitutes in a meal context. Food Quality and Preference (04 November 2010).