When a menu offers more meat-free options, the amount of people who choose to go meat-free increases significantly, according to international research.
Three studies were conducted across university and work cafeterias and in an online experiment
The researchers say in the university cafeteria, offering two meat-free meals instead of one led to a 20 per cent reduction in meat meal purchases and online, participants were more likely to select meat-free meals from a range of options if there were more meat-free meals available.
They found a much smaller impact in their study of worksite cafeterias, which they say could be influenced by individual cafeterias not reducing their meat options as much.
The results of the three preliminary studies have been reported in a paper published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
Despite the importance of encouraging more sustainable diets, few studies have investigated the effect of increasing the availability of meat-free meals as intervention to promote reduced meat consumption.
Researchers from the University of Oxford, conducted the three studies to investigate how the availability of meat-free options affect people’s food choices.
The first study was a natural experiment based in a University of Oxford cafeteria. Between September 2019 and January 2020, the menu was changed from previously offering one meat-free and two meat meals (baseline) to offer one meat and two meat-free meals.
The sale of meat-based meals decreased by almost 20 percentage points from a mean of 58.2% at baseline to 38.7% when a greater proportion of meat-free meals were available. There were no changes to meat-based meal sales in other university cafeterias during the same period.
A second natural experiment was carried out in 18 workplace cafeterias at a range of sites across England, including warehouses, manufacturing sites, and an office. The catering provider changed their menu in September 2020 to introduce meat-free Mondays and increase the range of meat-free meals offered.
The authors analysed sales data for the eight weeks prior to and eight weeks following the menu change, and report that the mean percentage of meat-free meals increased from 9.6% to 12.4%.
The noted there was considerable variability in implementation of menu changes across sites, which may account for the smaller increase in meat-free meal selection.
The third study was an online experiment where participants selected a meal from one of four options where the range of options could be predominantly meat, predominantly meat-free, or equally meat and meat-free meals.
A representative sample of 2205 UK adults were recruited from a global market research agency panel, Dynata. Individuals who had dietary restrictions, such as being vegetarian, were excluded to ensure that participants were able to freely choose between meal options.
The experiment ran between August and September 2020.
When an equal number of meat and meat-free meals were offered, 28.5% of participants selected a meat-free option. This increased to 47.5% in the majority meat-free setting, and decreased to 12.4% in the majority meat setting. The extent to which the ratio of meat and meat-free options affected choices did not vary by the gender, socioeconomic status, or baseline meat consumption of participants.
Taken together, these findings suggest that individuals are more likely to select meat-free options when such options are made more readily available. However, the authors caution that the size of this effect is uncertain due to differences across the studies in how the availability of meat-free meals was changed.
The paper’s lead author, Rachel Pechey, said:
“There is an urgent need to promote more sustainable consumption to protect planetary health, and reducing meat and dairy consumption could lead to substantial benefits in terms of both health and environmental impact. These preliminary studies show that changing the availability of meat-free options may be a promising intervention to reduce the selection and purchase of meat-meals. Further studies are needed to test the effectiveness of increasing the availability of meat-free meals.”
The authors suggest that future research could include exploring the potential barriers against shifting towards greater meat-free menus in locations where baseline meat consumption is high.
Link to research (DOI): 10.1186/s12966-021-01239-z