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Menus with social nudges and tantalising words can spur meatless dining

Fry’s Big Fry Burger. Prompts encouraging small changes and mouth-watering descriptions of vegetables influence diners' choices, according to new research. Picture: Bianca Coleman

Fry’s Big Fry Burger. Prompts encouraging small changes and mouth-watering descriptions of vegetables influence diners' choices, according to new research. Picture: Bianca Coleman

Published Mar 20, 2022


By Leslie Kaufman

Let’s talk about dinner and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. But let's do it carefully, because, as it turns out, picking words matters.

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Since this is a climate newsletter, perhaps you are bracing for a lecture about beef. And, yes, meat-eating is having an impact on the planet. Forests are being mowed down to make more space for grazing cattle.

Each year, a single cow can belch up to 100kg of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas. The business sector is attempting to remedy the problem by creating credible alternatives, like Impossible Burgers, and even lab-grown meat.

But a new working paper from the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington non-profit, suggests that in the short term there might be an easier way to modify behaviour and reduce meat consumption: a simple prompt on a menu. (The average American eats out several times a week, and in most years, the average family spends more than $3 000 (about R45 000) a year on restaurant food, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

WRI asked 6 000 US meat-eating study participants to pick between entrées in a simulated online ordering scenario. Most participants received one of 10 prompts. These nudged them to eat more plants or less meat, emphasising various benefits such as improved health and a more sustainable planet. In a subsequent phase of the trial, the 10 prompts were winnowed down to five.

The most successful prompt resulted in twice as many plant-based menu orders as the unprompted control group's: 25% as opposed to 12%. It read: “Each of us can make a positive difference to 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.”

The suggestive power comes from two parts of the prompt, according to Edwina Hughes, the head of the Cool Food Pledge at WRI, who will seek to put the findings into action.

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First, she said, "we know complying with social norms can be a powerful motivator." Social research has demonstrated that well-timed, polite reminders of socially responsible behaviour can meaningfully reduce everything from energy use to littering to towel use in hotels.

Part two, she said, was giving readers "a personal outcome they could relate to by making it an equivalent in their life. People do understand the idea of charging a phone"

The next step will be to try the messages not just on human lab rats but on people putting money down and ordering dinner or lunch.

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In the study, researchers also found that it helps to describe vegetables with evocative, appetite-provoking language usually reserved for meat, such as "slow roasted". Menu readers responded to words that emphasise flavour in vegetarian options, like "caramelised" and "richly spiced".

But Hughes says it's important to tread lightly when categorising meatless options. Meat eaters can be turned off when there is too much emphasis on terms like "vegetarian" or "vegan". "Immediately, they think: 'Oh, that's not us, that's not our tribe,’'" she said.

Menu writers, stick to caramelisation.

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This article first appeared in Sunday Insider, March 20, 2022