Who chooses what you eat? If your answer is “I do,” you’re partly right. You may buy your own groceries and order your own restaurant meals, but it’s the food industry that determines what is stocked on store shelves and listed on menus.
“The institutions all around us affect food choice,” said Matthew Hayek, assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University. Your choices are whittled down by what’s in the supermarket, your workplace or school canteen, the restaurants in the strip mall on your way home, he said.
That means that for people who want to reduce the carbon footprint of their diets, the greenest option isn’t always on the table. Or if it is, it isn’t the most appetizing or convenient.
What we eat has an enormous environmental impact. Scientists estimate that food production causes 35% of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, with meat responsible for more than twice the pollution of fruits, grains and greens.
In April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report urged world leaders, especially those in developed countries, to support a transition to sustainable, healthy, low-emissions diets to help mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis.
But the burden can’t rest on individuals making personal food choices, experts stress – producers, retailers, restaurants, workplaces and government must help make plant-based foods convenient, enticing and tasty.
‘It’s hard for people to change their diets’
Eating less meat is one of the most meaningful changes people can make to curb greenhouse gas emissions, help reduce deforestation and even decrease the risk of pandemic-causing diseases passing from animals to humans, according to the IPCC report.
The shifts needn’t be extreme. Adopting a healthy Mediterranean-style diet – rich in grains, vegetables, nuts and moderate amounts of fish and poultry – could be nearly as effective as going vegetarian or vegan, the report found. If everyone met basic nutritional recommendations, which for most people in developed countries means more fruit and veg and less red meat, emissions could fall 29% by 2050, according to one study.
“But it’s hard for people to change their diets,” said Caroline Bushnell at the Good Food Institute, a non-profit that advocates for plant-based and cultured meat.
Consumers often say they’re motivated to eat more healthily and more sustainably. But if given the choice between a dish that’s better for the planet but not especially appetizing, and a mouth-watering, meat-heavy option, people tend to listen to their gut, not their conscience.
It’s like offering someone the choice between fries and a side salad, Bushnell said. “Most people don’t pick the side salad – it’s not really an equivalent option.”
GFI wants large food manufacturers and processors to “change how the foods that people love are made”, she said. “Instead of advocating for behavior change, we approach it from a supply side angle.”
Big meat companies and consumer food brands are banking on plant-based proteins and lab-grown meat to help them respond to a growing appetite for more climate-friendly foods and to cut their own emissions.
McDonald’s is testing out the McPlant, while Burger King sells Impossible Whoppers and its UK arm is aiming for half of its menu to be plant-based by 2030. Ikea has promised the same in its restaurants by 2025.
Perdue makes hybrid chicken-veggie nuggets for kids and Tyson, which now calls itself a “protein” company, has launched its own brand of plant-based products. Last year JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, acquired a cultivated meat startup and plans to start selling lab-grown steaks, sausages and hamburgers in 2024.
With more products to sell, retailers, too, need to push non-animal proteins. The UK’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, for example, set a five-year goal to increase sales of plant-based proteins by 300%.
Getting customers to put plant-based alternatives in their shopping carts starts with placing those products next to things they’re alternative to, Bushnell said – meat-free burgers near the ground beef, vegan cheeses among conventional goudas and mozzarella – rather than relegating them to a specialty section.
Placement in the refrigerated section was crucial to bringing alternative milks mainstream. The tactic was pioneered in the 1990s by the founder of Silk, who started packaging his company’s soy milk in traditional milk cartons and persuading grocery stores to stock them in the dairy case. Now cow milks mingle with a bevy of nut and grain milks and 90% of alternative milk sales come from the fridge rather than the shelf-stable aisle.
The infiltration of alternative protein companies into supermarket real estate has not been without pushback, however. Several states, with pressure from farm associations, have passed laws restricting the use of words such as “burger”, “sausage” and “hotdog” on plant-based products, on the basis they could mislead customers. A similar law was voted down in the EU, though the bloc still prohibits labeling vegan products with dairy names.
“Consumers are not confused,” Bushnell said. “They don’t think when they buy a plant-based hotdog it’s a beef hotdog, but they understand how to use it.”
Food choices are rarely rational
In 2020, the research non-profit the World Resources Institute released a report looking at the most effective ways to encourage people to eat less meat based on the psychology of food choices. One of the strongest conclusions, the researchers wrote, was “that decision-making around what to eat is rarely a rational and carefully thought-through process”. People crave familiarity and are influenced by subtle physical and linguistic cues.
The report advises those in the food industry to offer more plant-based options, make them taste good and make them sound good. While fried chicken is “crispy” and burgers are “juicy”, menus often describe plant-based options as “healthy”, “vegan” or “meat-free” – none of which, research shows, makes people want to order them.
Using language to evoke flavor and mouthfeel (rather than healthfulness or ethics) makes people substantially more likely to order a vegetarian meal. When the cafes of UK food retailer Sainsbury’s renamed their meat-free sausage and mashed potatoes “Cumberland spiced veggie sausage and mash”, sales shot up 76%.
Other linguistic nudges can promote veg options by highlighting their environmental benefits. Among the most effective messages in WRI’s research were calls for people to be part of something already happening: “90% of Americans are making the change to eat less meat. Join this growing movement.” Or they were easy to understand comparisons: “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 two years.”
“Both of those are all about making an inconsequential choice a bit more consequential,” said Sophie Attwood, a senior behavioral scientist at WRI.
It also helps, Attwood said, to put vegetable options at the top of the menu and interspersed with, rather than segregated from, meat dishes. Studies have found making vegetable meals the default choice makes people many times more likely to order them.
Companies and institutions can lower their emissions by offering more plant-based meals. “They are the most important changes that an organization can make. What are you serving? What’s the ratio of vegetarian to meat-based dishes?” said Edwina Hughes, head of WRI’s cool food program, which has pledges from more than 50 organizations to reduce the climate impact of their food by 25% by 2030.
But some experts say real change needs to include legislative measures, such as taxing meat, as some European countries are considering. It seems unlikely in the US even though one study found more than a third of Americans would support it, even as inflation pushes up food prices.
Making progress requires all the tools available, said Hayek: educating people about food’s climate impact; giving them more and better plant-based options; guiding choice by changing the default, offering incentives and imposing disincentives (such as taxes); restricting and in some cases eliminating most meat options (as some European universities have). It worked to curb smoking rates, Hayek said, and it could work for food.
“What does it look like if we actually dedicate ourselves to making a concerted, comprehensive attempt to tackle food choices?” he asked. “Let’s try.”