Why don’t more people go vegan? It could be the label.


Sebastian Lock / Laif / Redux

Sebastian Lock / Laif / Redux

Originally published by: National Geographic

By Meryl Davids Landau

When food items are specifically labeled as vegan—indicating they are prepared with no animal products, including eggs or butter—people are less likely to select them, even though it is better for the planet and for their health, according to a recent experiment.

Growing and transporting food accounts for a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions, which are accelerating the climate crisis. Of these, the vast majority come from processes linked to meat and dairy production, which is why experts are advising societies to shift toward more plant-based eating.

“We have to make big changes to how we produce and consume food if we want to reach climate goals” and feed Earth’s ever-growing population, says Richard Waite, an expert on food climate policy at the nonprofit World Resources Institute.

But the study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates this may prove challenging.

Researchers asked some 150 people attending several university events to pre-order their lunch and choose between two options, one of them vegan. Choices included vegetable versus cheese ravioli and a vegetable hummus wrap versus a Greek salad with feta. A similar study of meal preferences was also conducted online. Half the respondents in both studies randomly received an order form in which the vegan item was labeled, with the word in parentheses.

When this vegan terminology was used, people were less likely to order the entrée than when it was not. For the in-person attendees, some two-thirds more avoided the dish.

After the research was published, some people told the study’s lead author, Alex Berke, a doctoral student at MIT’s Media Lab, the results were unexpected. But she anticipated the outcome.

Berke herself began eating vegetarian (a plant-based diet that includes dairy and eggs) at age 10 and adopted a vegan diet three years ago to help the climate. “Anyone who has been eating vegan or vegetarian for a while would not be surprised,” says Berke. “They see the bias against these foods.”

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