"Plant-Based Dishes, Raw Food (29103285347)" by Ella Olsson from Stockholm, Sweden is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Can A Nudge Help Consumers To Choose Foods That Reduce Environmental Harm?

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Everyday we make choices. We know in our hearts what is the best of all possible choices, but we sometimes hesitate due to lack of willpower, long-held habits, or personal preferences. Sometimes a nudge, that oh-so a gentle push, can attract our attention and move us to make better choices.

The power of a nudge has become a popular method to encourage more plant based food consumption, as a shift away from meat based diets is vital for reducing the environmental impacts of animal agriculture.

Eating more plants is essential for mitigating climate change.

The food system is responsible for about a third (34%) of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and too often we forget that our food choices have major impacts on the environment. Meat based diets are carbon-intensive and incompatible with Paris climate targets to hold global average temperature increase to “well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”

Reducing our consumption of meat products and eating plant based more often can help reduce our diet’s footprint. This growing concern has prompted consumers, the grocery retail industry, and the hospitality sector to step up environmental sustainability practices.

Climate change awareness, beliefs, and concerns are necessary for pro-sustainable behavioral intentions such as switching to more plant based foods. Yet, given the negative impact that eating meat and animal-derived products can have on the environment, it is important to understand how diets may be changed. It’s not persuasive to offer lists of information, or to argue about meat-eating habits, or even to place blame. Some have suggested a food tax for items that are environmentally unfriendly foods, but taxes are historically unpopular. Nudges are more subtle, and, if presented in an appealing fashion, create choices that arise as the best of all options.

Behavioral nudges—which are minor modifications in how choices are presented —are popular interventions to change people’s diets and have been increasingly used to reduce meat demand. With roots in psychology, nudge theory was named and popularized by the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, written by University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein. The duo argued that small, low-lift interventions that don’t restrict people’s overall options can be a powerful lever for changing behavior.

Nudges can be structured choices offered to consumers to facilitate climate-friendly dietary shifts. A more sustainable, flexitarian diet makes a significant impact, says Florian Humpenöder, scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-lead author of a 2024 study published in Science Advances.

“The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions related to dietary shifts, especially methane from ruminant animals raised for their meat and milk, would allow us to extend our current global CO2 budget of 500 gigatons by 125 gigatons and still stay within the limits of 1.5°C with a 50% chance.”

The study results show that, compared to continued dietary trends, a more sustainable diet reduces impacts from food production such as deforestation and nitrogen losses. It also reduces GHG emissions — to the extent that it cuts economy-wide 1.5°C-compatible GHG prices in 2050 by 43%. Even more healthy flexitarian diets would reduce our dependence on carbon dioxide removal in 2050 by 39%.

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The Nuances of a Nudge

Human behavior change is typically slow, particularly for culturally ingrained and socially dependent behaviors. The nudge can work to change dietary habits due to societal tipping points — changes in societal interactions. Once a sufficient threshold of members of the society is reached, a small additional change can trigger a nonlinear change that leads to a different and often irreversible state of the social system. Designing environments that nudge consumers towards plant-based alternatives, by making these choices easy, normal, and convenient, is a promising strategy for effecting change.

At the same time, it is visible to the people with whom we spend our daily lives, creating a positive reinforcing loop. This raises the question of whether people are publicly adapting their diets to gain a green reputation, as has been observed for other environmentally relevant consumption choices. So, rather than an overt occasional plant based selection, the goal is to entice diners into routines by offering a plant based nudge. Food nudges vary, ranging from informational labels, to social and personal norms, default options, and micro-physical changes in the environment.

Here are some persuasive suggestions to nudge people toward plant based options.

Default: Meat-free meals become the default at public functions. Kiosks serve veggie stir fry so patrons have to ask for meat. New York City’s 11 public hospitals serve patients plant-based food as the main option.

Plant forward placement: Meat items, when offered, go at the end of the buffet line. Place plant based lasagna in the most popular part of the canteen. Foreground loaded potato skins, lentil nachos, zucchini fritters, or shiitake mushroom dumplings. Serve entrees such tamale pie with fresh tomato and corn, vegetable pot pie, red bean chili, or mushroom Stroganoff. New York City plans to help institutions like Columbia University and the New York Botanical Garden adopt nudges and plant-forward defaults as part of a plan to slash food-related carbon emissions by a quarter by 2030, as reported by Bloomberg.

Swapping ingredients: Delete the meat in dishes and replace it with plant based ingredients. Here are some easy substitutions:

  • Portobello mushroom caps instead of chicken breasts
  • Tofu as a substitute for chicken or beef
  • Vegetable stock to replace chicken or beef stock
  • Quinoa or vegetable patty instead of a beef burger
  • Coconut oil or nut butter in place of dairy butter
  • Vegan cheese as a substitute for dairy cheese
  • Oat, rice, almond, soy or coconut milk for dairy milk
  • Ground flaxseed, bananas, or applesauce to replace eggs

The Language of Enjoyable Eating: 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. One study concludes that vegans think about plant based foods in terms of enjoyable eating experiences, but omnivores think quite differently about plant based foods. The latter’s focus is more global and altruistic: health and vegan identity, neither of which motivates plant based consumption in the moment.

So presenting plant based foods with language that references enjoyable eating experiences increases their appeal, especially for habitual meat eaters. This language includes words about sensory features of the food (e.g., crunchy, creamy), eating context (e.g. pub; with family) and immediate positive consequences of eating (e.g. comforting, delicious). In contrast, the term “vegan” is strongly associated with negative stereotypes. The lesson here is that, rather than referring to being vegan, meat-free, or healthy, the language used for a plant based food nudge should refer to sensory appeal, attractive eating situations and enjoyment. Suggestions include to rename vegan food with enticing adjectives like “feel good” and “juicy.”

Appealing names: Google’s employee cafes use appealing names for plant based dishes, like Wine Simmered French Vegetable Medley Soup. Here are some suggestions from BrandPlant that focus on plant based flavor, are creative and familiar, and avoid negative labels:

  • Succulent mushroom burger
  • Savory lentil soup
  • Flavorful veggie chili
  • Hearty bean tacos
  • Creamy coconut curry
  • Decadent chocolate mousse

Final Thoughts about the Nudge toward Plant Based Eating

Want to experience a truly decadent plant based dining experience? Then look no further than Eleven Madison Park in New York City — with 4 stars from the New York Times and 3 stars from Michelin Guide.

They offer three menus, all of which are 100% plant based. The main dining room tasting menu is 9 to 10 courses for $365 per guest, traditionally lasting two and a half to three hours, featuring both plated and communal dishes. The 6-course menu is $285 per guest, featuring highlights from the Full Tasting menu along with tableside preparations, lasting roughly two hours. Served in their lounge, Eleven Madison Park offers a Bar Tasting menu for $195 per guest that consists of four to five courses, commonly lasting one and a half to two hours.

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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 Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1312 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna