Selling More Veg*n Food Is Possible, With A ‘Nudge’
Have you ever wondered if there’s a way to make meat-eaters choose vegetarian food? Plant-based food is on the rise and more widely available than ever—from convenience foods to restaurant menus, veg*n food is making its presence known. It’s more broadly accepted than ever that animal-free meals help reduce carbon emissions as well as improve human health (not to mention saving animals). But what if we could influence customers—even meat-eating ones—to choose veggie options, simply by redesigning the space in which those choices were available? During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been advised to stay two metres apart. It now seems that, just as distance might minimize the spread of coronavirus, separating food counter choices might maximize the uptake of plant-based foods.
In this study, a team of researchers provided evidence of so-called ‘choice architecture’: that it is possible to create an environment in which people make slightly different decisions than they otherwise might. Previous researchers believed this was possible, but the theory of ‘nudging’ has remained a mostly untested area of research, limited to only 11,290 meals across 18 existing studies. The researchers in this study took up the mantle to find out if people really could be ‘nudged’ into choosing vegetarian food.
Experiments were carried out over two academic years at the University of Cambridge, England. Using data from 105,143 meal selections at 449 lunch and dinner times across two College cafeterias, the team first predicted that whichever dish was nearest the door was more likely to be chosen. Meat and vegetarian main meals as this first option were alternated weekly and sales were measured. There was little change at the first cafeteria, but at the second, College B, it was clear that the order of meals offered did make a difference. When the vegetarian main meal was first, its sales went up by 4.6% to 25.3% of total meals sold. When first choice meals were alternated monthly rather than weekly, vegetarian food sales increased by 6.2% to 39.7% of all meals sold.
This begs the question: why was this difference observed at College B and not A? The main difference between the two was the distance between the two main meal options. At College A (smaller sized), it was 85cm (~33”), less than half that of College B, which was 181cm (~71”). The researchers suspected the difference might be attributable to distance as well as order.
They conducted a second study over 175 mealtimes to test this additional influence and, reducing the distance in College B to 67cm (26”), they found that:
- Distance mattered. Kept so close to the meat dish, vegetarian sales were 4.2% lower than meat sales overall, even when they were the first visible option.
- Mealtime mattered. Lunchtime vegetarian sales were 6.7% lower than meat sales, though at dinnertime there was little difference.
- Length of time mattered less. When altered monthly rather than weekly, overall vegetarian sales changed little, but went up 2.3% if first choice for dinner.
- Studied together, mealtime and order became more significant than distance and order.
While the results are interesting, the authors note that the specificity of location and audience make it difficult to generalize the results to the wider population. This type of study needs to be repeated in other places and spaces to do that. Other decisions may also have affected the outcome – for example, only data for the main vegetarian and meat meals was used, despite other options being available.
More research is needed to understand exactly what environment is ideally-suited to drive up veg*n food sales, drive down the numbers of animals used for food, and to help stall climate change. However, giving consumers a ‘nudge’ by engineering the visibility of plant-based choices, and keeping animal-laden dishes further away, seems at least to be part of the answer. Those advocating for animals, as well as those tasked with improving public health and increasing food sustainability, should take note.