The Vegan Effect: How Labeling Food as Vegan Impacts Ordering

by | Oct 1, 2023

I’ve followed a vegan diet for 21 years. I love it when a restaurant menu labels items that are vegan — it makes ordering easier for me. But it turns out that labeling items as vegan dissuades people from ordering those items.

Researchers at MIT conducted a study to see the effects of labeling menu items as vegan and whether that would affect how many people ordered the vegan item. The method they employed was sneaky. The study employed registration forms for events hosted at the MIT Media Lab during spring and summer of 2022. The events provided attendees with free food and at the time of event registration two meal choices were provided: one vegan and one vegetarian. Half of the attendees had the vegan option labeled as vegan while the menu options for the other half weren’t labeled. Here’s the choices for the two groups:

As you can see, both menus are identical except the one on the left has “(vegan)” noted for the Veggie Hummus Wrap (which sounds delicious). The labeling of the Hummus Wrap as vegan or not had a huge impact on whether attendees chose that option. Here’s a graph summarizing the results for the two different trials they conducted:

When labeled as vegan, only about 1/3rd chose the Veggie Hummus Wrap — when it was unlabeled nearly 2/3rd chose it. Wow. The researchers concluded, “Overall, our results showed that vegetarian and vegan labels negatively impact consumers’ likelihood to choose the labeled options.”

Why might this be? I can think of a few possible reasons:

  1. Vegan food may sound unappetizing to some people.
  2. Veganism carries a negative connotation for some people. The term vegan carries with it more than just information about the ingredients of a meal. It also suggests a worldview that includes environmentalism and animal rights (thus, liberal vegans outnumber conservative ones by a 3-to-1 ratio). And there’s the self-righteousness of some vegans that put omnivores off. (Here’s a joke to that effect: “How can you tell if someone is a vegan? Just wait, they’ll tell you).
  3. Maybe some think vegan food is unhealthy. (Where do you get your protein?)

I found this MIT study fascinating for a few reasons:

First, living in my own bubble, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which vegan carries a negative connotation for some people. Recently my wife suggested that I say I eat a “Plant-Based Diet” instead of “Vegan” in order to sound less judgy. This MIT Study supports her (wise) view.

Second, the study is good example of how we are persuaded by labels and marketing. Just changing one word had a huge effect on how people ordered. I bet other food labels like “low-carb” or “all-natural” or “whole grain” have similar effects.

Here’s a prior IFOD that’s pretty fun: Mostly Dumb Questions Vegans Get Asked

1 Comment

  1. I agree with Tammy that “plant-based” sounds more appealing! I actually get the vegan pizza slice at Whole Foods all the time and prefer it over the non-vegan.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe To The IFOD

Get the Interesting Fact of the Day delivered twice a week. Plus, sign up today and get Chapter 2 of John's book The Uncertainty Solution to not only Think Better, but Live Better. Don't miss a single post!

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This