Consumers are 56% less likely to order a plant-based dish when it’s labelled vegetarian and categorised in a separate section on menus, according to new research by the London School of Economics.
The experts took a menu with eight main course dishes, of which two were plant-based: risotto primavera and ricotta and spinach ravioli. They then created four different versions of the menu and tested them on 750 UK adults who usually eat meat and/or fish.
Each person was shown one menu version, allocated at random, and asked to choose what dish they would select if they were in a restaurant having dinner with friends.
In the “control” version of the menu, the dishes were all formatted in the same way in a single list, with the plant-based dishes first and last. This was then compared with a version in which the two plant-based dishes were placed together at the bottom of the menu, in a separate section under a line with the heading “Vegetarian Dishes”.
Diners who received the menu with the plant-based dishes in a vegetarian section were 56% less likely to order those dishes. In fact, only 5.9% of the people who received the vegetarian section menu chose a plant-based dish, compared to 13.4% of those offered the control menu.
Linda Bacon, a graduate student in behavioural science who conducted the study, said the problem with putting some dishes into a separate vegetarian section of the menu is that it highlights the lack of meat or fish, and makes these choices look exclusive to a certain group.
“Participants may have seen this section of the menu and automatically thought it wasn’t relevant to them,” she explained. “Those who don’t identify as vegetarian, which is most people, might see a vegetarian section as for someone else and ignore the dishes listed there.”
Segmenting off the vegetarian options may also “prime people with negative associations about vegetarian food”, she said. “For example, some people may think it is less tasty or nutritious, and men may be influenced by the association between meat-eating and masculinity.”
Placing one of the plant-based dishes in a “Chef’s Recommendation” box didn’t have any effect overall. However, amongst those who eat meat and fish most often, there was a “significant increase” in the proportion of people choosing a plant-based dish from such a menu.
The team will now conduct field tests of the experiment at sites run by members of the World Resources Institute’s Better Buying Lab, including Sodexo, Hilton and Google. They will also assess whether using alternative language and phrases can drive more people to opt for plant-based dishes.
The aim is to develop a proven lexicon for describing plant-based dishes that appeals to meat-eaters and non-meat eaters alike, and drives increased consumption of these options.
“How we see and talk about plant-based foods is ripe for innovation, and it’s potentially a cost-effective way of driving demand,” Bacon added.