How Better Language Can Help Accelerate Growth in Plant-Based Food

By Daniel Vennard, Director, Better Buying Lab, World Resources Institute

Imagine walking into a restaurant, sitting down and looking at the menu. You see butternut squash with rice and greens. Or, you see slow-roasted butternut squash stewed in a sweet and spicy coconut curry with fresh Thai basil.  They are the same dish, but which are you more excited to try?

Relatively simple changes to how we describe and label plant-based dishes like the one above is a potentially powerful tool for increasing consumer demand for foods that are healthier for people and planet. The Better Buying Lab, which is part of the World Resources Institute, is researching what language enhances – and suppresses – the appeal of plant-based foods.

What we eat matters for our environment. Increasing the proportion of plant-based food in our diets would help free up the land and water needed to feed a growing population and preserve vital natural resources. Even small changes can have big impacts. Researchers have estimated that for UK consumers, just cutting back on meat could reduce diet-related greenhouse gas emissions by more than one-third.

The good news is that demand for more sustainable foods is increasing. In 2013, close to half of those surveyed across the food industry in Britain said their customers want more sustainable food options. And another analysis from 2016 to 2018 found that vegetarian dishes have been consistently gaining in share on menus.

But changing our behavior is not straightforward, and shopping is a deeply habitual and sub-conscious process. Our decisions are shaped by not just the foods we’re offered in restaurants, but by how they are displayed, marketed – and yes, how food is described through words and language.

Last year, research out of the London School Economics found that calling out vegetarian dishes in a separate section on a menu suppressed ordering of those dishes by an astounding 56 percent. Building off this initial study, the Better Buying Lab is researching language that does drive demand for plant-based dishes. As part of this work, we recently brought together more than 50 leading academics and practitioners from the food industry over the course of two workshops, in Washington D.C. and London, to identify the most powerful research questions that, if answered, can improve the language of plant-based food and shift more consumers toward more sustainable diets.

Through these workshops, participants identified five questions to guide future research:

  1. How do we improve our knowledge base on how language influences food choices?
  2. What can we learn from current plant-based food language?
  3. What language is the most effective for plant-based food?
  4. What are the key segments to target and how do we appeal to them?
  5. What’s the best way to get improved language adopted at scale?

Participating experts also identified the actions required to advance this research and ensure findings are widely adopted by the food industry. We’ve published these as-yet-unanswered questions and action areas in a new paper.

At the end of 2018, based on its work and learning, the Lab will release guiding principles on language that works to increase consumer ordering of dishes made with more plants. You don’t need to wait to get started, though. Here are three actions to get going on:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the many important reasons to join the culinary movement of shifting more people to diets better for the planet.
  2. Get cooking. Now’s the time to perfect your plant-based and plant-forward recipes so they taste great and have wide appeal.
  3. Sign up to receive alerts from the Better Buying Lab so you’re first in line to receive our applicable research that can help you sell more veg-filled dishes.

The future of food is delicious and better for the planet. And the language used to describe that food should be just as appetizing as the flavors.


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