Increasing numbers of consumers are adopting ‘flexitarian’ approaches to diet and incorporating more meat-free options. This has resulted in a rise in vegetarian choices – both in retail and foodservice channels. However, researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) found that people are less likely to go meat-free when they are presented with a vegetarian section in the menu.
The study looked at the dining decisions made by people who “frequently” eat vegetarian food but are not themselves vegetarian. It concluded that this flexitarian consumer segment is not as likely to choose a vegetarian dish when a restaurant menu contains a separate vegetarian section.
‘Half as many’ people chose vegetarian options
The LSE researchers focused their study on vegetarian food choice because of its positive implications for the environment.
They “randomly” presented experiment participants with different menu designs with the aim of testing how people who frequently eat vegetarian food would respond to the different menus and, likewise, to see how those who rarely eat vegetarian food would respond. People who identify as vegetarian or vegan were excluded from the study
Placing vegetarian dishes in a separate section did not have a significant impact on the food choices made by infrequent vegetarian consumers, the study, published in Appetite, concluded.
However, there was a “notable” effect on people who reported eating only vegetarian food on at least two days in the previous week. Less than half as many of these people chose a vegetarian option from the menu with a separate vegetarian section than from a menu in which all options were presented in a single list.
Why does menu segregation backfire?
The researchers concluded that the practice of separating vegetarian food choices – which is common in both restaurants and supermarkets – could in fact reduce the number of people who choose vegetarian alternatives.
The researchers also discovered that presenting a vegetarian dish as the ‘Chef’s Recommendation’ or including a more appealing description of a non-meat meal lead to a greater proportion of infrequent vegetarian eaters choosing a vegetarian option. But, again, these altered menu designs backfired with those who ate vegetarian food more frequently, leading them to be less likely to choose a vegetarian dish.
The researchers suggested that this backfiring may be down to “moral licensing”.
Having behaved in way that is considered healthy or morally desirable some people may subsequently feel "licensed" to make a less healthy or morally desirable choice, the study postulated.
In this context, restaurant menu interventions that emphasise vegetarian meals may remind the frequent vegetarian food-eaters that they have already engaged in this seemingly “morally valuable” food choice on many occasions, prompting them to select meat or fish instead, the researchers suggested.
Eating a diet which includes more plant-based food and less meat is increasingly being promoted as a way to protect the environment and tackle climate change.
Linda Bacon, one of the study’s authors, commented: “Our findings suggest that while certain restaurant menu designs can encourage some consumers to make pro-environmental food choices they can have the opposite effect on others. Restaurateurs may therefore need to experiment to find the design that is most effective for their specific clientele.”
Published online ahead of print: DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2018.02.006
‘(Not) Eating for the Environment’
Authors: Linda Bacon; Dario Krpan