Magic words that encourage plant-based eating

Researchers have helped shops turbocharge sales of meat free grub – by getting them to remove the phrase “meat free”

Aerial view of a plant-based meal

We’ve all had conversations with our omnivorous loved ones, trying to persuade them to eat less meat, or give up entirely. But what if the very words we are using are putting them off?

After two years of research, the World Resources Institute’s Better Buying Lab has found that descriptive terms like “meat free”, “vegetarian” and “vegan” can be barriers to people choosing certain foods from restaurant menus or supermarket aisles. That’s because they are perceived to emphasise a lack – and appeals to the belly are more effective than those to the brain.

Shoppers, it seems, are more likely to respond to food based on descriptions of its flavour, taste and texture than they are on its being meat free and healthy. So the lab has been working hard to come up with alternatives that sound both delicious and tempting, focusing on the stomach rather than the head and heart.

As part of a new report, the lab has been working with retailers in the UK and US, to test-drive alternative phrases. And it’s been working: sales of Sainsbury’s “meat free sausage and mash” rocketed 76 per cent after it was rebranded “Cumberland-spiced veggie sausage and mash”. Panera, a US food company, changed the name of its “vegetarian black bean soup” to “Cuban black bean soup” – and saw sales rise 13 per cent.

According to the lab, if restaurants and the food industry want to increase sales of their veggie and vegan offerings – and if our environmentally damaging diets are to change – then plant-based food needs to be marketed so it flies off the shelves. That means dropping four specific terms: meat free, vegan, vegetarian and “healthy restrictive” – in online tests, virtually every alternative name for meat free dishes got a better response than simply calling them “meat free” – and focusing on evocative, mouth-watering words that highlight provenance, flavour, and look and feel.

Daniel Vennard, who leads the Better Buying Lab, says the goal is to make “this party sound even better than the other party [by] appealing to the inner food critic within all of us”. The aim is to encourage people to eat more plant-based options more often. Cutting back our meat consumption by 30 per cent would put us on the road to making 50 per cent of the necessary cuts to agricultural emissions by 2050, according to the WRI. Vennard admits it was a “surprise… how much of an impact language can have on ordering behaviour.”

Read the WRI research