Take two menu items: “slow-roasted caramelized zucchini bites” and “nutritious green zucchini.” Science says you’re more likely to pick the first. That’s just some of the findings in a new study that tested using different language to describe vegetables, which could be an important factor in the quest to get people to eat less meat.
“We know how we label food can have substantial effects on both what people choose to eat and the experience they have while they’re eating,” says Bradley Turnwald, a graduate psychology student at Stanford University and lead author of the study. (Some previous lab studies found that if you label food as healthy, people will rate it as less delicious, less filling, and less enjoyable than the same food without the label. Despite this fact, Turnwald says, most healthy foods are currently marketed with a focus on their health properties rather than taste or indulgence.)
The study is one of several to look at how to persuade consumers to eat more plant-based foods, either for health reasons or because of the environmental impact of the standard meat-heavy American diet. A shift to more vegetables and less meat would especially impact climate. If everyone in the world became vegan by 2050, according to a 2016 study, food-related carbon emissions would be cut 70%. Even if everyone simply ate less meat than projected, emissions could drop nearly 30%.
There are signs that diets are already changing. In one 2016 survey, more than half of Americans said that they wanted to eat more plant-based foods. Another survey found that 59% of consumers already ate meatless meals once a week. Beef consumption dropped 19% between 2005 and 2014. But another survey found that overall meat consumption changed little over the last few years.
The Better Buying Lab, an initiative of the global research organization World Resources Institute, launched in 2016 to study how to accelerate the shift in diet that consumers say they want to make, using techniques more often used by corporate food brands to sell more products.
“One of the things that we noticed was that most attempts to try and change people toward eating more sustainable food rely on informing and educating them,” says Daniel Vennard, who leads the lab’s work. “Our research showed that education and information are helpful, but not the most effective tools at helping consumers change their behavior . . . consumption isn’t rational.”
Working with experts in behavior change, marketing, and advertising, the lab is currently partnering with companies like Google and Sodexo to test new language on menus. For 25 dishes from the companies’ cafeterias, the team generated 250 new names that are currently being tested in online market research. The best performing names will be tested on menus to see how much they can change what consumers buy for lunch. (In a separate project, the lab is also working with chefs to test new plant-based “power dishes” that it thinks can better compete with the most popular dishes with meat (of the 25 most popular dishes among the partners, 24 currently include meat.)
Another recent study, from a London School of Economics graduate student, found that if a plant-based entree is listed in a separate vegetarian section on a menu, non-vegetarians are 56% less likely to order it than if it is listed along with other dishes. Vennard believes many of the challenges of shifting to less meat have to do with social norms; if people don’t see themselves as vegetarian, they won’t consider ordering vegetarian food. “It seems very absolute–you’re either vegetarian or you’re not,” he says. “Whereas what we think is we just need to get people to reduce their meat consumption, and just increase the number of plant-based dishes they eat.” A simple change in menu design could be one way to achieve that.
The Stanford researchers, who were motivated by health impacts, looked at menus from chain restaurants in another study, noting the adjectives used for standard foods versus healthy foods. “We were actually pretty surprised to find that in restaurants on the menus they describe their healthy foods using less tasty, less exciting, less indulgent, even less provocative words,” says Turnwald. “This is a big problem because people don’t think healthy food taste is good . . . how can we expect people to choose these healthy foods if they’re not described in a way that aligns with what we’re motivated to eat? Because we’re mostly motivated by taste when we’re choosing what we want to eat.”
In the latest study, the researchers pulled descriptions more commonly used for other foods (beans became “sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots,” for example) to increase appeal. They also tested basic descriptions (“green beans”), descriptions that focused on health in a restrictive way (“light ‘n’ low-carb green beans and shallots”) and descriptions that focused on health in a positive way (“healthy energy-boosting green beans and shallots”). None performed as well as the “indulgent” descriptions.
Turnwald points out that the indulgent descriptions weren’t deceptive. “We don’t want to trick people,” he says. “People don’t like to be tricked, so that wouldn’t be a strategy that is very good and long lasting. But what we’re doing with the labels, we’re just changing what we have people focus on. So whether we said the vegetable was healthy or we said it was indulgent, it was true, we just shifted the focus toward the taste and indulgent components of the food.”
He sees language and marketing as a way to help change how Americans think about healthy food. “We may not only choose vegetables more when we think of them this way, but we might actually enjoy the experience when we eat them, too,” he says. “There’s some evidence that shows that being in an indulgent mind-set while you’re eating is actually better physiologically than when you’re in a mind-set of restriction. And then there’s other research that shows that if you make a healthy decision but you feel deprived you may eat more later on anyway. So here we really want to start changing this restrictive messaging around healthy food.”