A “vegetarian curry stew” or just a “curry stew”? - The effect of neutral labeling of vegetarian dishes on food choice among meat-reducers and non-reducers

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Encouraging meat eaters to eat more vegetarian foods benefits public health and environment. This study examined whether changes in menu design, specifically in the labeling of a dish, increases vegetarian food choice. In an online survey experiment involving a representative sample of Danish meat eaters (n = 955) we investigated the frequency with which dishes are chosen when they have a neutral vegetarian label (with no explicit indication that the dish does not contain meat), an explicit label (as vegetarian, meat-free, vegan, or plant-based), or a label referring to meat. We also examined the role of individual characteristics of the diner (food neophobia, meat-eating identity, meat intake and ethical concern). We found that neutral labeling outperformed explicit labeling among all meat eaters (neutral 17%, meat 10%, explicit labels 5%–7%) and in two sub-groups, namely, non-reducers (who are not actively reducing their meat intake: explicit 3.4%, neutral 10.2%) and meat-reducers (explicit 14.4%, neutral 30.1%). We found no significant differences between the four explicit labels. We show that non-reducers with low meat-eating identity can be nudged to choose a neutrally labeled vegetarian dish, and that, among ethically concerned meat-reducers, the vegetarian dish is chosen more often when the dish is neutrally rather than explicitly labeled. Finally, we show that meat-avoiders (additional convenience sample, n = 148) were as likely to choose a neutrally labeled vegetarian dish as an explicitly labeled one. Our results suggest that neutral labeling sidesteps reactance and moral licensing effects in both meat-reducers and non-reducers, and that food outlets with meat-eating customers should carefully consider their use of explicit labeling and use neutral labeling for vegetarian dishes where possible.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101877
JournalJournal of Environmental Psychology
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2022

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Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Authors

    Research areas

  • Food choices, Interventions, Labelling, Meat reduction, Menu design, Vegetarian

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