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The Gentle Art of Menu Persuasion

Updated: Feb 4, 2022

Simple changes to messages on restaurants’ menus can double the frequency of customers choosing plant-based options instead of meat, research has found. That's good news for both people and planet.

Restaurant menu showing lots of choices

The production, transportation and consumption of food has become an increasing focus for climate researchers, with a recent study finding the food industry accounts for more than a third of the world’s total annual planet-heating emissions.

Raising cattle, chickens and pigs for meat causes about double the emissions of plant-based foods. We're all becoming increasingly aware of this, with many people already reducing their meat consumption - receptive to the idea of switching to vegetarian options in order to help the environment.

Now, new research has found that thoughtful messaging on restaurant menus is a potentially significant way of shifting behaviour - whereas previous attempts to promote vegetarian or vegan options had fallen short, coming across as preachy and righteous, turning mainsteam audiences off.

Researchers tested responses to 10 different sustainability-themed messages when the participants were asked to choose between different options on a menu, such as a bean burrito or beef burrito. The good news is that several of the messages produced dramatic results.

For example, diners who read “Each of us can make a positive difference for the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your small change can make a big difference” on their menus chose a vegetarian dish 25 percent of the time, more than double the rate of diners who were shown no message at all.

Other messages, about the taste of the food and the need to protect the planet for future generations, also yielded positive results in choosing vegetarian meals, suggesting that consumers’ choices can be significantly shaped by how menus are presented.


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