A study on 94,644 meals revealed a hopeful result about vegetarian eating

Education or money will only go so far.

Feeding the world with livestock and fisheries causes over half the food industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. More than taking shorter showers or carpooling, changing what you eat is one of the most most effective ways for individuals to combat climate change.

But getting people to go meatless or eat fewer animal products has long proven difficult. Education and even monetary incentives — like a tax on red meat — have limited influence on decision-making and are politically controversial.

A study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at how increased vegetarian meal options may shift people toward a plant-based diet. By examining 94,644 meals over a single year at three cafeterias at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, researchers observed meal choices in two cafeterias where varying amounts of vegetarian meals were already offered. For the third cafeteria, they increased vegetarian options from 16.7 percent to half the menu.

Researchers found that doubling the proportion of vegetarian meals increased vegetarian sales by between 41 and 79 percent. The research suggests that offering a wider variety of vegetarian options will make people more likely to go veg over a meat-based option.

Sometimes called “nudging”, shifts like these can achieve behavior change. It’s called “choice architecture”, or the physical, economic and social context in which decisions are made. Building different choice architecture, which makes environmentally sound decision-making easier, could be the key to minimizing environmental damage from meat eating. Convenience seems to influence food decisions more than information or even food labeling.

A tiny sliver of the population actually abstains from meat products. A 2018 Gallup poll found that only five percent of Americans report being vegetarian; Three percent were vegans. Other countries, like India, Israel and Australia also eat more plants and less meat, than the United States.

Unsplash / Johnny McClung
"Upping vegetarian options is cheap and often goes unnoticed.

While most research has focused on the importance of reducing meat consumption globally, few studies have tested which strategies and interventions are effective in practice. The Cambridge researchers claim this is the first study to confirm this intuitive reasoning: more vegetarian options equate to higher vegetarian sales.

The study’s authors suggest that upping vegetarian options is a relatively cheap intervention that often goes unnoticed; The ingredients often cost less for school chefs’ budgets, and the practice, unlike “Meatless Mondays”, doesn’t require students to reject meat completely. Some days, they still ate that burger or grilled fish; but if there were more vegetarian options, they were more likely to mix in more vegetarian meals throughout the week.

Fast food joints, school cafeterias, and luxury restaurants are already putting this strategy into practice. Disney World and Disneyland recently announced plans to introduce hundreds of vegan options across its facilities.

The plant-food industry has already grown monstrous, with sales totaling over $3 billion in 2018, taking up about 20 percent of total food and beverage dollars. People aren’t just buying more tofu and veggie burgers, traditional vegetarian staples. An explosion of nut milks, plant-based pizza crusts, and veggie noodles are filling grocery store shelves.

Maybe the path to a plant-based world is simply offering a larger number of vegetarian options that taste good and cost less than their meat-based counterparts. More research is needed to see how cost and taste play into decision-making, and expand the studied population beyond university halls.

If all the vegetarian options taste like crap or cost an arm and a leg, then even the most concerned environmentalists or animal advocates may steer clear.

Shifting people in higher income countries toward more plant- based diets would protect the natural environment and improve population health. Research in other domains suggests altering the physical environments in which people make decisions (“nudging”) holds promise for achieving socially desirable behavior change. Here, we examine the impact of attempting to nudge meal selection by increasing the proportion of vegetarian meals offered in a year- long large-scale series of observational and experimental field studies. Anonymized individual-level data from 94,644 meals purchased in 2017 were collected from 3 cafeterias at an English university. Doubling the proportion of vegetarian meals available from 25 to 50% (e.g., from 1 in 4 to 2 in 4 options) increased vegetarian meal sales (and decreased meat meal sales) by 14.9 and 14.5 percent- age points in the observational study (2 cafeterias) and by 7.8 percentage points in the experimental study (1 cafeteria), equivalent to proportional increases in vegetarian meal sales of 61.8%, 78.8%, and 40.8%, respectively. Linking sales data to participants’ previous meal purchases revealed that the largest effects were found in the quartile of diners with the lowest prior levels of vegetarian meal selection. Moreover, serving more vegetarian options had little impact on overall sales and did not lead to detectable rebound effects: Vegetarian sales were not lower at other mealtimes. These results provide robust evidence to sup- port the potential for simple changes to catering practices to make an important contribution to achieving more sustainable diets at the population level.
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