Veg*n Menu Labels: More Harm Than Good?
Shifting from an animal-based to a plant-based food system would benefit animals, public health, and the environment. But changing people’s eating behaviors is hard, and the demand for animal products, such as meat and dairy, is expected to grow.
Research has shown that the way foods are presented on menus influences what consumers order. However, the authors of this study note that many menu designs intended to increase vegan and vegetarian (veg*n) choices have been ineffective. Therefore, the researchers used field experiments and an online study to examine how veg*n menu labels affect what U.S. consumers order.
The authors based their studies on a behavior change strategy known as “nudging.” Nudging refers to designing a certain environment — such as a menu — in a way that subtly encourages consumers toward a beneficial behavior (e.g., reducing meat consumption). The nudges that researchers tested in these studies were veg*n menu labels. Specifically, they examined the effect of placing “vegetarian” or “vegan” in parenthesis beside the name of a corresponding item on an online menu.
In two initial field studies, researchers examined online registration forms that asked participants to pre-order meals for university campus events. It’s important to note that these forms were for actual events — participants were truly ordering food. Participants chose between two menu items, either a vegetarian or a vegan dish, each with a name and description typical of restaurants. Half of the participants were randomly selected to see menus with labels for the vegan dishes, while the other half received the same menu choices without vegan labels.
The third study tested a hypothetical scenario using an online survey. Researchers asked participants to pretend that they were ordering one of two choices from a menu. While the field studies compared vegan orders to vegetarian ones and did not come with a cost, the online study asked participants to choose between vegan, vegetarian, or meat items, and they were told that all items would (hypothetically) cost the same. While only vegan items were labeled in the field experiment, the online study labeled both vegan and vegetarian items in the experimental condition.
In both field experiments, participants were significantly more likely to choose the vegan item when the menu options were unlabeled (and, in fact, more participants chose the vegan option than the vegetarian one in the unlabeled conditions). In the online study comparing vegan vs. vegetarian dishes, the results were similar — labels had a negative effect on vegan orders, but to a lesser degree. When online participants were asked to choose between a vegetarian and meat option, they were also significantly more likely to pick the vegetarian one when the dishes were unlabeled. The vegan vs. meat comparison was not statistically significant.
The online study revealed, overall, that veg*n options were chosen significantly less frequently when they were labeled. Notably, individuals who identified as men ordered meat more frequently than other individuals did, regardless of whether dishes were labeled or not. Finally, removing veg*n labels did not negatively impact self-identified veg*ns.
Animal advocates should be cautious about applying results from this research, as the impact of labels depends on many factors and may vary in different circumstances. For example, the studies were conducted in a limited geographic area (Northeast U.S.), and only the online study included menu options containing meat. Furthermore, the authors were unable to collect demographic information for the field experiments, and they noted that choices may change if consumers are expected to pay for their meals. Finally, it’s unclear whether the results would remain the same for foods labeled as “plant-based” instead of “vegan.”
These results suggest that one way to nudge people away from dairy and meat is to remove vegetarian and vegan labels from menus.In other words, rather than attempting to overhaul a menu to include more veg*n options, simply removing menu labels may be an easy, low-cost alternative to “nudge” consumers away from animal products.