Plant Based Foods: The Language of Menus Can Inspire Better Choices

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Can the language used in a restaurant’s menu change the way you look at plant based foods? What do you think of when you read a menu and see the words “rich” or “crispy?” The language of food can be blatant (“acidic”) or nuanced (“honeyed”); it can be inviting (“citrusy”) or inhibiting (“sour”). The words on menus and sandwich boards suggest flavors that inspire customers’ eating decisions, so the language of food can help build anticipation and even convince a hesitant customer to try something new.

Nowhere is this language of food more important than in the rediscovered realm of plant based foods. Today’s food entrepreneurs are learning to draw upon an extraordinary mélange of language, history, and food to appeal to flexitarians and others who have become intrigued by meatless meals.

What is behind the Power of the Language of Food?

“The best word shakers were the ones who understood the true power of words. They were the ones who could climb the highest.”

— Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief

Social norms are an integral element for creating public participation and collectively solving contemporary challenges. The power that a social norms have in influencing behavior is rooted in the human desire to belong to one’s community, and that applies to plant based foods, as well. For many of us, eating meat has been a social norm culturally transmitted by our families, generation to generation. Yet we now know that including more meat-free dishes in our diets benefits the environment and our health while also promoting animal welfare.

In The Language of Food, Dan Jurafsky examines the subtle and intended meanings behind the way we describe food. The Stanford University professor and MacArthur Fellow unpacks the mysteries from the foods we think we know. Metaphors and storytelling tropes, Jurafsky suggests, become a micro-universe of marketing language that we have come to recognize anywhere from Michelin-rated restaurants to the back of a bag of potato chips.

The average person in the US dines away from home several times a week — to the point that a typical family spends more than $3,000 a year on restaurant food, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Interestingly, meat-eating diners who are accompanied by vegetarians are more likely to choose a vegetarian dish than meat-eaters who are accompanied by other meat-eaters alone. This probability increases as the number of vegetarian co-eaters increases; eaters are most likely to modify their food choices if opposing eating norms are represented by direct social ties.

Each of us can make a positive difference to the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for 2 years. Small changes can make a big difference, starting with the language of food upon which we draw.

Words matter.

Research Says … Use Appealing Words for Plant-Based Options

Food production accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gases, making shifting people’s diets toward lower carbon plant based foods a critical strategy for reducing emissions. Encouraging consumers to purchase plant-based dishes is one way food service outlets can work toward reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. A field experiment, conducted in a UK-based chain of cafés, aimed to identify the most effective language to describe plant-based menu items to encourage consumers to select these options.

Compared to original dish names that used language highlighting the lack of meat in a dish (e.g., “Meat-free” or “Vegetarian”), new names that emphasized taste or origin (e.g., “Cumberland-spiced”) or used more appealing words for plant-based options (e.g., “Field-grown” or “Garden”) significantly increased sales of the target vegetarian dishes.

The results from this field experiment provide evidence that it is possible to encourage consumers to select plant-based dishes in a food service setting by simply changing how dishes are described on menus.

Another study, this one out of the World Resources Institute (WRI), finds that displaying thoughtfully framed environmental messages on restaurant menus can significantly increase customers’ uptake of lower carbon, plant-rich dishes. The Washington-based nonprofit suggests a delicate blend of appealing words on a menu has the power to modify engrained meat-eating behavior. WRI finds that the two most effective descriptive messages doubled the chance that a consumer would order a vegetarian menu item. These themes are “small changes can make a big difference” and “join a movement of people choosing foods with less impact on the climate.” ​

WRI argues that restaurants and food businesses should use these findings to increase sales of lower carbon menu items while helping consumers choose foods that fit a climate-friendly lifestyle. The number of participants in the study was statistically significant: with more than 6,000 participants, the findings can be adapted and tailored to a wide variety of retail and food service contexts.  This study demonstrates that adding environmental messaging can be an easy, cost-effective, and promising way for companies to see impact and shift consumer choices toward more climate-friendly options.​

The Language of Food: How to Market Plant Based Foods

The Good Food Institute offers several ways in which the language of food can help to market and promote plant based foods that can be substituted for meat, egg, and dairy items on service and restaurant menus.

  • Make flavor the primary message: Create and showcase indulgent plant-based dishes with taste-forward positioning.
  • Highlight provenance: Nationality: “All-American.” Regional: “Southern.” Cuisine: “Cuban.” Preparation: “Pan-seared chick’n.”
  • Keep it familiar: Research suggests that familiar contexts, formats, flavors, preparation, and messaging resonate with consumers. Make commonplace dishes and utilize plant-based foods as part of familiar meals. For example, pair plant-based meatballs with marinara sauce and spaghetti.
  • Add an exciting twist of novelty: Plant-based meat is well-positioned to meet the need for familiarity as well as the desire to try new and exciting foods. This is familiar food with a twist, “a delicious burger made from plants!”
  • Emphasize the protein content & quality: Consumers often rely on protein as an indicator of satiety, nutrition, and feeling energized.
  • Let plant proteins subtly cue health: Flavor should be the primary message, but noting “plant protein” can be a subtle healthy cue. 38% of US consumers associate plant proteins with positive health effects.
  • Use positive framing: Talk about what the dish offers (made from plants, plant-powered) instead of what the dish doesn’t contain (meatless, reduced meat).
  • Accentuate the health benefits, not the negatives: Pointing out positive nutritional content (high protein, high fiber) is more effective than describing low levels of negative things (low sugar, low fat).
  • Use strong imagery: Pictures communicate flavor better than words!
  • Extend brand equity: Leverage your brand loyalty to endorse new plant-based menu items, e.g. Burger King’s Impossible burger, “0% beef, 100% Whopper” or the McDonalds McPlant platform.
  • Use appealing descriptors: Words to use: Plant protein, plant-based, veggie, 100% plant-based, 100% plants.Words to avoid or use sparingly: vegan, meat-free, meatless, vegetarian, beef-less. See GFI’s study on category descriptors for more insight.
  • Mark items as vegan or vegetarian subtly: Use small symbols. Vegan or vegetarian are seen by US consumers as lifestyles rather than types of cuisine, and vegetarian/vegan consumers will find the options even without labels.
  • Invest in promotion: Just like other menu items, plant-based foods benefit from good marketing and intentional advertising. Use images and videos that highlight flavor and familiarity.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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