Menu design: how highlighting the meat-free options might not hit the mark

Restaurants need to experiment on where to put their vegetarian options, a new study has revealed.  

19 March 2018

Segregation is a bad thing. This we know. But who would have thought it could also apply to vegetarian meals on a restaurant’s menu?

According to new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science, placing vegetarian dishes in a separate section does not have a significant effect on the choices made by infrequent vegetarian food eaters, but does impact on people who report going meat-free for at least two days a week.

The experiment randomly presented 750 people with different menu designs. While vegans and vegetarians were excluded from the study, flexitarians were prominently featured.

When it came to a menu with a separate vegetarian section, less than half as many flexitarians chose to go meat-free, compared to when all options were presented in a single list.

These findings show that the practice of separating vegetarian dishes on a menu can reduce the proportion of people who choose a vegetarian option, the researchers said.

But presenting a vegetarian dish as the ‘chef’s recommendation’ or including a more appealing description of a non-meat meal led to a greater proportion of infrequent vegetarian eaters choosing it.

Sounds like a simple enough fix – except when are consumers ever an easy bunch? The altered menu designs may have worked Jedi mind tricks on occasional veggie eaters, but it backfired with those who ate vegetarian food more frequently, causing them to be less likely to choose a vegetarian dish.

Why? The researchers suggest that this effect may be down to 'moral licensing.'

What is moral licensing?

Restaurant menus that emphasise vegetarian meals may remind the frequent vegetarian food-eaters that they have already engaged in a 'morally valuable' food choice on many occasions, prompting them to select meat or fish instead.

If restaurants, canteens or cafes want to encourage more people to eat sustainably, it may require designs to be tailored to the target audience.

Linda Bacon, one of the study’s authors, said restaurateurs can have a positive impact on the environment by encouraging their customers to choose more plant-based food and less meat.

“However, 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,” she said.

Making meat-free easy? It may be best not to point it out.

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