Restaurants which include specific vegetarian sections on their menus may be inadvertently encouraging customers to eat meat, a new study suggests.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, the London School of Economics (LSE) found that if non-meat dishes are included amid the main courses, they are chosen more often.
Many restaurants are trying to persuade customers to eat more sustainably, moving away from environmentally unfriendly meat towards, greener dishes.
Behavioural scientist 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.”
The study involved 750 people, half of whom frequently ate vegetarian food – so-called flexitarians – and half whom rarely ate it. No vegans or vegetarians were included. They were given different menus and asked to choose a meal as if they were eating out with friends.
Placing vegetarian dishes in a separate section did not have a significant effect on the choices made by infrequent vegetarian food eaters.
But it did have a notable effect on the frequent eaters, lowering their chance of picking a vegetarian option by 65 per cent.
The researchers also discovered that presenting a vegetarian dish as the ‘Chef’s Recommendation’ or including a more appealing description of a non-meat meal lead to a greater proportion of infrequent vegetarian eaters choosing a vegetarian option.
But, again, these altered menu designs backfired with those who ate vegetarian food more frequently, leading them to be less likely to choose a vegetarian dish.
The researchers suggest that this backfiring effect may be down to ‘moral licensing’. Having behaved in way that is considered healthy or morally desirable someone may subsequently feel ‘licensed’ to make a less healthy/morally desirable choice.
So restaurant menus that emphasise vegetarian meals may remind the frequent vegetarian food-eaters that they have already engaged in this seemingly morally valuable food choice on many occasions, allowing them to select meat or fish instead.
The study was published in the journal Appetite.