New research suggests that labeling menu items as vegetarian or vegan can influence consumer food choices. The findings, published in Appetite, indicate that these labels can negatively impact the likelihood of U.S. consumers choosing meat-free food options.
“Our food systems have an important and massively negative impact on the environment. This issue and the changes that can reduce the negative impacts are often overlooked. One simple and important change is to reduce consumption of meat as well as other animal products,” said study author Alex Berke, a researcher and PhD student at the MIT Media Lab in the City Science Group and author of “Beautiful Symmetry.”
“The academic department where I work spends a large amount of money on catered events, which is common. In 2021, I proposed the department avoid spending on meat in order to align spending with environmental goals, as a climate initiative. The proposal was controversial. After speaking with many in the department, it seemed there was an issue with language around the proposal, perhaps a bias. The research in the study confronts this bias. The motivation is to move, not only our department, but many other organizations, institutions and society, closer towards consumption patterns that align with climate efforts.”
The researchers first conducted two field studies. Events were organized where attendees were provided with free meals. The event organizers sent out email invitations to the MIT Media Lab community, encouraging them to register for the events. The first field study had 53 participants, primarily graduate students, and the second field study had 103 participants with a mix of roles.
The event registration forms were used as the experimental platform. The forms had two menu options: a vegan option and a vegetarian option. One version of the form included a label indicating that the vegan option was “(vegan),” while the other version did not have any labeling.
These field studies evaluated whether labeling the vegan option with “(vegan)” led to fewer participants choosing it compared to when there was no label. The results from both field studies indicated that labeling had a negative impact on the likelihood of participants choosing the vegan option.
The researchers then conducted an online study to explore whether the findings from the field studies could be replicated in a different setting. The final sample included 698 participants, with diverse characteristics in terms of gender, age, and income. Participants who identified as vegetarian or vegan were excluded from the main analysis.
Similar to the field studies, the online survey presented participants with a series of menu choice questions. In the “labeled” condition, the vegan or vegetarian option was labeled, while there were no labels in the “unlabeled” condition.
The results again showed that labels had a negative impact on choices. In the labeled condition, 36.6% of participants chose the vegan option, while in the unlabeled condition, 42.7% chose the vegan option.
“Removing vegan and vegetarian labels from menu items can help encourage the selection of these more sustainable options. Compared to other climate efforts, this change would be low cost and simple to implement and does not reduce consumers’ freedom of choice.”
The researchers also explored the influence of gender on food choices. Male participants showed a preference for meat options where the alternative was vegetarian or vegan. However, no interaction effect was found between labels and gender, suggesting that the presence of labels did not significantly impact this gender-based preference for meat options.
“I expected that the labels would have a more negative impact on male study participants. We did not find evidence that this was the case. But we did find that males had significantly higher preference for meat (not surprised).”
Berke added that he “was surprised that other people were surprised by the results. Many have commented that these results are surprising. In contrast, other people who have maintained a vegan or vegetarian diet for years (like myself), were not surprised at all.”
The study, “The negative impact of vegetarian and vegan labels: Results from randomized controlled experiments with US consumers“, was authored by Alex Berke and Kent Larson.