Can this cafe ‘trick’ change what we eat?

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When deciding on dinner, you might think you’re ruled by your stomach – but it turns out your decisions could be influenced by external factors too.

New research from the University of Cambridge has looked into how our food choices in eateries are affected by the positioning of meat and vegetable dishes, and if it could encourage us to eat more plant-based meals.

The study’s findings have been published in the journal Nature Food, and the question is: can scientists really influence how we eat?

The study – conducted over two years – found people weren’t more likely to choose the vegetarian option if it was just placed in front of meaty dishes. However, this changed when the vegie option was positioned much further in front. In one cafe, the vegetarian meal was placed 85cm in front of the meat – and saw little increase in sales – but when there was a 181cm gap, sales increased by nearly 40 per cent in the monthly comparison.

Lead author Emma Garnett, a conservationist from the university’s Department of Zoology, said: “Reducing meat and dairy consumption is one of the simplest and most impactful choices we can make to protect the climate, environment and other species.

“We’ve got to make better choices easier for people. We hope to see these findings used by catering managers and indeed anyone interested in cafeteria and menu design that promotes more climate friendly diets.”

After all, we eat with our eyes too, and Ms Garnett explains: “We think the effect of the metre may be down to the additional effort required to seek out meat. If the first bite is with the eye, then many people seem perfectly happy with an appetising vegie option when meat is harder to spot.”

It’s an example of a behavioural ‘nudge’ – an idea defined by economists Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. In their book Nudge they write: “The bottom line, from our point of view, is that people are, shall we say, nudge-able. Their choices, even in life’s most important decisions, are influenced in ways that would not be anticipated in a standard economic framework.”

Meaning, we can retain freedom of choice, but be ‘nudged’ to make certain decisions, simply by the layout of our environment – the meat options are still available, but the vegie options are front and centre by some distance, so you might just (hopefully) opt for them instead.

There are plenty of other nudges used in the world of food, to help us make healthier choices, for instance the health star rating, and salt, sugar and fat content clearly labelled, as well as proposals to include calories on menus, and swapping junk food for healthier options by supermarket tills.

In this case though, the environment is the priority. The researchers say the meat, fish, dairy and egg industries make up 58 per cent of greenhouse gases created by global food, taking up 83 per cent of farmland while only delivering 18 per cent of our calorie intake.

The study comes hot off the heels of Cambridge researchers advising us to eat less meat to reduce the risk of future pandemics.

Are you vegetarian or vegan? Do you have meat-free days each week? What would make you pick the vegie option?

– With PA

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