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The Impact of Vegetarian and Vegan Labels on Food: More Harm than Good?

The Impact of Vegetarian and Vegan Labels on Food: More Harm than Good? Food and Beverage Business

Experts in the food and beverage industry are urging consumers to reduce their meat consumption to mitigate climate emissions. The UK’s Climate Change Committee has recommended a 20% reduction in meat consumption by 2030, increasing to 35% by 2050.

Despite this, there is a growing demand for meat and dairy products, as plant-based brands continue to gain popularity.

However, a recent study suggests that labeling meat-free options as ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ may have a negative impact, as meat eaters are less likely to choose these meals when they are explicitly labeled as such. Interestingly, removing these labels did not result in vegans or vegetarians accidentally selecting options with meat.

Alex Berke, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, explains, “Meals containing animal products are often presented as the default versus more environmentally sustainable vegetarian or vegan options. We tested whether vegetarian and vegan labels on menu items negatively impact the likelihood of consumers choosing these items.”

The study conducted two experiments. In the first experiment, college students were given the choice between a hummus wrap made with vegan ingredients or a Greek salad containing dairy. Some participants saw the options labeled as vegan/non-vegan, while others saw them without labels. The results showed that participants who saw the unlabeled options preferred the vegan dish, while those who saw the labeled options preferred the non-vegan dish.

In the second experiment conducted online, participants were asked to hypothetically choose from various menu options, including vegetarian, vegan, or meat-based dishes. Similar to the first study, some participants saw explicit labels, while others only had access to the ingredients list. Once again, the results revealed a negative effect of labeling, with approximately 10% more people opting for a vegetarian or vegan meal when there were no labels.

Berke and her colleagues concluded, “Overall, our results showed that vegetarian and vegan labels negatively impact consumers’ likelihood to choose the labeled options. Removing these labels may provide an extremely simple and low-cost means for restaurants and other institutions to reduce their environmental impact, with minimal changes to menus, and without impacting consumers’ freedom of choice. 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.”

In addition to this study, research conducted by vegan cheese brand Julienne Bruno revealed that both ‘plant-based’ and ‘vegan’ labels are deterring shoppers, including vegans, from purchasing greener options. This indicates the need for a shift in how we talk about and label food to cater to consumers’ desire for originality, taste, and quality produce.

– The negative impact of vegetarian and vegan labels: Results from randomized controlled experiments with US consumers. (Appetite). []

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