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Don't say "vegan": Food labeling should focus on health and sustainability 

Researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) have uncovered a simple yet effective strategy for encouraging meat eaters to opt for vegan options. The experts say to focus on health and sustainability in labeling food, rather than emphasizing the absence of animal products. 

The research sheds light on the power of words in influencing dietary choices. The study, involving over 7,500 U.S. adults, revealed a significant resistance to the terms “vegan” and “plant-based.” 

Rebranding vegan foods 

When a gourmet gift basket devoid of meat and dairy was labeled “vegan” or “plant-based,” it was less likely to be chosen by Americans. By contrast, labeling the same basket as “healthy” or “sustainable” nearly doubled its appeal. 

This discovery underscores the potential impact of rebranding vegan foods to highlight their health and environmental benefits.

“The word ‘vegan’ has a negative connotation,” said study co-author Wändi Bruine de Bruin, co-director of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics. “Focusing on the health and environmental benefits is helpful because a lot of people are increasingly concerned about eating food that is healthy and good for the planet.”

Striking results 

The researchers presented participants with a choice between a vegan gourmet gift basket and one containing meat and cheese. The vegan basket’s label varied among “vegan,” “plant-based,” “healthy,” “sustainable,” and “healthy and sustainable.”

The results were striking. Only 20% of the participants chose the basket labeled “vegan,” and 27% chose it when labeled “plant-based.”

The choice for the vegan basket surged to 42% with the “healthy” label, 43% for “sustainable,” and 44% for “healthy and sustainable.”

The effect of labeling was consistent across different socio-demographic groups, but most pronounced among red-meat eaters.

Broader implications

Joe Árvai, director of the USC Dornsife Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, emphasized the urgency of modifying behaviors to benefit the environment.

“We live in deeply polarized times where even the mere mention of certain words and phrases – from ‘climate change’ to going ‘vegetarian’ – can trigger people into inaction or, worse, even higher levels of unsustainable consumption,” said Árvai. 

“That’s why studies like this are so important. They help us to understand how to talk about some of the most important issues of our time in a way that motivates action without causing half the country to tune us out.”

Simple solution 

Bruine de Bruin noted that the promising results lie in the simplicity of changing labels, which is both cost-effective and easy to implement. 

“Supermarkets, stores, and restaurants can choose to change how they market products and themselves, based on these findings.”

Shifting dietary habits 

The research was led by Patrycja Sleboda, a former research associate at the USC Wrigley Institute and visiting scholar at the Schaeffer Center. Now an assistant professor of psychology at Baruch College, City University of New York, Sleboda played a pivotal role in the study.

The research presents a new approach to encouraging vegan food choices by strategically labeling products. By focusing on health and sustainability rather than veganism, there is potential to significantly shift dietary habits, contributing to both personal health and environmental conservation.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation. The results are published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.


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