Meat eaters will choose a vegetarian meal if the majority of dishes offered in restaurants are plant-based, according to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (1). The researchers from the University of Westminster, UK, observed that the menu had to be at least 75% vegetarian for this tipping point to occur. In contrast, a menu with 25% or even 50% vegetarian dishes was not enough to trigger this change of eating habits
The study proves that those that eat meat can adapt their choices but only if they’re given enough vegetarian options to choose from. For the researchers, this means that the food sector can actually have a significant impact when it comes to encouraging sustainable food choices. Dr. Beth Parkin from the University of Westminster and Dr. Sophie Attwood from the World Resources Institute suggest that change can be achieved simply by presenting the consumer with the right dishes without actually persuading individuals to make drastic changes to their diet.
These types of interventions are called “nudges” because they explore how decisions can be influenced to produce the desired behaviour. In this case, a high proportion of vegetarian dishes on the menu encouraged more people to choose them, rather than their usual meat-based dishes.
During the study, the researchers looked at the impact of increasing the availability of vegetarian food when served to people who usually eat meat. Participants were allocated to different menus randomly to determine how many plant-based meals were needed to promote sustainable choices. Researchers believe the change happened because the increased availability of vegetarian food made it more acceptable and gave consumers a more comprehensive range of options.
“This intervention shows the potential that the food service sector has in creating large-scale shifts to encourage meat eaters to change their preferences. The findings provide practical instruction on what percentage of their food offerings should be vegetarian if they are to succeed in encouraging sustainable eating behaviours. If the food service industry are to decrease their carbon footprint, they need to act by providing far more plant-based items than currently on offer”, said Dr. Beth Parkin, lead author of the study from The University of Westminster.
At the moment, the meat and dairy industries account for about 25% of total carbon emissions. If we don’t do something about this, the impact of livestock alone will stop us from reaching the targets defined by the Paris Agreement. If we can commit to significant changes in our diet, we can have a big impact on carbon emissions.
(1) Parkin B and Attwood S (2021) Menu design approaches to promote sustainable vegetarian food choices when dining out. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 79, 101721 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272494421001742