Words Matter When Describing Plant-Based Foods
In a recent article by the World Resource Institute’s Better Buying Lab, which aims to increase sustainable consumer choices, researchers summarized some of their early findings on the ways that different types of language can affect food preferences. In particular, the authors found that using words that emphasize what a meal doesn’t contain often results in lower sales. For example, consumers tend to shy away from foods that have been labeled “meat-free.” On other hand, including positive qualities of the menu item – such as its flavor or the inspiration for the dish – can increase purchases.
Using examples from stores or companies that have experimented with different naming approaches for their plant-based offerings, the authors lay out which types of language are associated with lower product sales. For example, a British supermarket who marketed a product as “Meat-free Sausage and Mash” saw slightly higher sales when the name was changed to “Better Sausages and Mash,” and much higher sales when it was changed to “Field-grown Sausages and Mash” and “Cumberland Spiced Veggie Sausages and Mash.” The Better Buying Lab also ran online trials that had similar results: dishes labeled “meat free” generally had less appeal. The authors believe this may be because the word “free” implies that the food is lacking in some way. Similarly, they found that items labeled with terms like “healthy” or “reduced-sodium” may make consumers think the foods will taste boring or unsatisfying.
The article also explored the use of the term “vegetarian” in food labeling. The authors cite studies showing that a vegetarian diet is often associated with positive characteristics such as healthiness and compassion, but also brings up concerns about proper nutrition and bland food. In one study discussed, the researchers found that simply grouping vegetarian dishes into a “Vegetarian” section on menus reduced the likelihood diners would order it by more than half.
The word “vegan” is viewed even less favorably. One study found that more than two-thirds of consumers would be less likely to purchase a product if it were labeled “vegan.” Another study examined the use of terms such as “plant-based” and “vegan” on social media and elsewhere online and found that “vegan” was much more likely to be used as a negative term than “plant-based” was. The authors suggest that these findings are the result of a sort of social divide in which non-vegans see veganism as conflicting with their identity. Despite this, the authors advise using a leaf or other symbol to show when an item is vegan or vegetarian.
Rather than using labels that are viewed as restrictive, the authors find that marketers should emphasize the origins, flavors, appearance, and feel of foods. For example, a Panera Bread location that changed the name of “Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean Soup” to “Cuban Black Bean Soup” saw sales increase by 18%. Another study found that changing “Chickpea and Potato Curry” to “Indian Summer” increased interest by 15%. In addition highlighting the cuisine that inspired a dish, referencing the environment in which the food was grown, such as “Garden Breakfast” or “Field-grown” breakfast, can also increase sales.
Dish names that include flavorful descriptions of the food also increase sales. For example, the authors cite a Stanford study that saw vegetable dishes with names describing the flavors sell 25% better than more basic names and 41% better than names that spotlighted healthiness but were restrictive, such as “reduced-sodium” or “no added sugar.”
Finally, the authors suggest using terms that highlight a food’s color or describe how it feels in your mouth, like “creamy” or “crunchy.” Unlike with more restrictive terms, pointing out the positive qualities of a dish may make consumers expect it to be tasty and exciting.
Although avoiding terms like “vegetarian” and “vegan” may mean that consumers are unaware that the dish does use animals for food, this strategy could still be a useful way of increasing the prominence of plant-based foods. Another important takeaway from this piece is the associations the general public has with terms like “meat free,” “vegetarian,” and “vegan.” Animal advocates could try to change these perceptions by directly connecting plant-based terminology with terms that may be thought of more positively.