UNITED KINGDOM, London. A new study shows shifting dietary choices towards vegetarian meals can be influenced by menu design. But participants only decided against meat dishes if the availability of vegetarian choices on the menu were ample.
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Beth Parkin from the University of Westminster and behavioral scientist Dr Sophie Attwood studied the likeliness of consumers to opt for a plant-based meal while dining out. In randomized control trials diners were significantly more likely to choose a vegetarian meal if the menu consisted of more than 75% vegetarian options. However, menus containing an equal amount of meat and vegetarian dishes or 75% of meat dishes did not persuade consumers to choose plant-based meals. In addition, labeling dishes as vegetarian had no influence on food choices.
The psychological mechanisms behind the decision-making are to be further examined but the scientists suspect that “increasing the availability of vegetarian food may implicitly suggest socially acceptable norms for behavior – or just provide customers with a wider range of options that they might not have previously considered.”
The study highlights the impact the restaurant industry has in changing eating habits. This simple approach known as “nudging” is preferable to more dramatic and cost-intensive interventions such as tax increases or large-scale educational campaigns. They are cheap and easy to put into action, however, it is not enough to add a few vegetarian dishes to a mostly meat-based menu. According to Parkin the food service sector can reduce its environmental footprint but only if it gets serious about it.