Nudging people into choosing vegetarian options over meat in cafeterias does not seem very complicated. A simple formula — which separates the two food options by a meter — might do the trick, according to a new study. The strategy might help restaurants boost sales of plant-based food, say researchers. The strategy involves placing vegetarian meals about 181 cm ahead of meat.
Researchers from Cambridge University found that sales of plant-based dishes shot up by a quarter in the weekly analysis and by almost 40% in the monthly comparison in a university cafeteria. The idea can help address two issues: climate change and public health crisis. Non-vegetarian food is linked to increased greenhouse emissions. And cutting down meat intake could reduce the risk of the next pandemic, some experts suggest.
“Reducing meat and dairy consumption are one of the simplest and most impactful choices we can make to protect the climate, environment, and other species,” says lead author Emma Garnett, a conservationist from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.
The strategy — called choice architecture or nudge theory — is not new. Nudges are subtle measures that guide people to make better choices without posing restrictions on them, according to the University of Chicago’s Richard H Thaler, who created the theory. “If you want to get people to eat healthier foods, then put healthier foods in the cafeteria, and make them easier to find, and make them taste better, he says. Thaler and Cass Sunstein from the Harvard law school wrote a book on it. Grocery stores and restaurants have adopted this strategy to attract people to certain products by rearranging food items.
The book inspired the study. “But there’s actually very little published data on it,” Garnett tells MEA WorldWide (MEAWW). “Furthermore, a catering manager we knew had tried placing new and unfamiliar dishes first in the cafeteria to tempt diners to try them, and he very kindly agreed to collaborate with us to test the same approach with vegetarian options,” she adds.
On why they zeroed in on 181 cm and 85 cm gap for their study, Garnett says the distances between the options already existed in cafeterias. The researches decided to stick to it. “It’s a huge advantage and privilege to be able to test these approaches in actual cafeterias (rather than in a mocked-up lab setting),” she explains.
Garett and her colleague gathered and analyzed data from 105,143 meal selections over two years across the two cafeterias. During that period, they alternated the positioning of meat and vegetarian dishes every week and then changed the pattern to every month.
The cafeteria that placed plant dishes one meter ahead of meat options clock better sales for vegetarian items. Positioning the two options with a gap of 85 cm did little to boost green eating in the other cafe, the researchers say. “We are not entirely sure why this distance leads to higher vegetarian sales when it’s placed first, but I think it’s a combination that the meat option is more out of sight and it takes more effort to get to it,” Garnett says. She adds that other studies have suggested that people tend to choose options that are easy and cheap.
The researchers are unsure if the strategy can coax people who are hellbent on consuming meat. “Unfortunately for this study, we don’t know as we don’t have data on the individual diners (just the overall sales),” she says.
What can restaurants and cafeterias do?
According to Garnett, the layout has a role to play. If both vegetarian and meat options are adjacent to one another, placing the former first is unlikely to work, she says, adding that it could even be counter-productive.
“For restaurants and cafeterias, which do have the ability to place their vegetarian option(s) nearest the entrance, and place meat options more than 180cm away: this could be an effective means to increase vegetarian sales,” she notes. “It would be well worth pilot testing though!” The study is published in Nature.