- We found that vegan and vegetarian labels commonly found on menu items have a significantly negative impact on consumer's likelihood to choose these menu items.
- These findings are from randomized controlled experiments that we conducted within our community and then expanded to a larger sample of US participants from surrounding states.
- We also did not find removing these labels on menus would negatively impact vegans/vegetarians by leading them to accidentally choose options with meat.
- Our experiment suggests these labels should be removed from menus to normalize and encourage vegetarian and vegan eating, which is more environmentally sustainable - overall these labels do more harm than good.
Food systems have an important impact on environmental resources and are globally responsible for a third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Reducing consumption of animal products is a critically important challenge in efforts to mitigate the climate crisis. Despite this, meals containing animal products are often presented as the default versus more environmentally sustainable vegetarian or vegan options.
What we did
We tested whether vegetarian and vegan labels on menu items negatively impact the likelihood of US consumers choosing these items by using a between-subjects experimental design, where participants chose a preference between two items. Menu items were presented with titles and descriptions typical at restaurants, and a random group saw "vegan" or "vegetarian" labels in the titles of one of the two items.
We conducted field studies at the MIT Media Lab, where people selected what to eat via event registration forms. The methodology was extended to an online study, where US consumers selected what to hypothetically eat in a series of choice questions.
Overall, results showed the menu items were significantly less likely to be chosen when they were labeled, with much larger effects in the field studies, where choice was not hypothetical.
In addition, the online study showed male participants had a significantly higher preference for options containing meat versus other participants. Results did not indicate the impact of labels differed by gender. Furthermore, this study did not find that vegetarians and vegans were more likely to choose items with meat when the labels were removed, indicating that removing labels did not negatively impact them.
The results suggest removing vegetarian and vegan labels from menus could help guide US consumers towards reduced consumption of animal products.
This experiment was approved by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology institutional review board (IRB): protocol 2203000615.