Calling Plant-Based Food ‘Vegan’ Makes Fewer People Choose It, Study Finds

Could a move away from vegan labels make plant-based foods more mainstream?


3 Minutes Read

A person looking disgruntled by a vegan label on food while out shopping Some meat-eaters may be unwilling to try vegan food - Media Credit: Adobe Stock

New research has found that meat-eaters were “significantly less likely” to choose plant-based meals if they were labeled as vegan.

The study, called The negative impact of vegetarian and vegan labels, was conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. It consisted of two field studies. In both experiments, college students were offered the choice of a vegan hummus wrap or a Greek salad wrap (which contained dairy feta cheese) on a virtual RSVP form for events at the university’s media lab.

The ingredients of each item were listed out for both dishes on both forms. For half of the participants, the wrap was labeled vegan, but it was left unlabeled for others. 

In the first field study, 36 percent of the participants chose the vegan option when it was marked as vegan. When it wasn’t labeled, 60.7 percent chose it. In the second field study, 33.9 percent chose the marked vegan option, while 63.8 percent chose it when it was unmarked. 

Researchers then widened their study to the broad US population, finding that consumers were “significantly” less likely to choose an option labeled “vegan” or “vegetarian.” In contrast, vegans and vegetarians still chose meat-free items when labels were removed, meaning it’s unlikely that labels impact their decision.

A virtual form filled out by meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans as part of a study into food choices
Alex Berke The RSVP forms participants filled out

Should foods be labeled?

According to study authors, their findings indicate that labels should be removed from food products to encourage more people to choose meat-free 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,” said study authors Alex Berke and Kent Larson. 

Berke and Larson conducted the study over concerns about the impact our food choices have on the environment. Adopting a plant-based diet is said to be one of the best things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. Doing so could decrease it by around 73 percent

The environmental impact of meat

Animal agriculture has been found to be responsible for roughly 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Some experts believe this figure to be underestimated, however. 

Farming animals is also a leading cause of deforestation, biodiversity loss, species extinction, and water pollution. Scientists from bodies like the UN and University of Oxford have stated that we need to dramatically change our farming system if we are to avoid climate collapse. 

While there has been a rise in vegans and vegetarians across the globe, there is still a growing demand for meat. This is because the popularity of meat-free diets isn’t growing as fast as the population. To combat the increasing consumption of meat, cultivated meat and realistic meat alternatives have been put forward as possible solutions. 

According to a media release from MIT on Berke and Larson’s research, removing labels from vegan foods could provide a cheaper solution than these.

A person looking at a food label in a supermarket
Adobe Stock The way vegan foods are labeled impacts how many people choose them, researchers say

“Conversations about food sustainability often focus on novel or expensive solutions, such as synthetic meats or hydroponics. But the research offers a much simpler and more low-cost option that could have an important impact.”

It added that removing vegan labels could “normalize plant-based eating” by placing these options as “default.”

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