MIT study suggests removing food labels could change the way we eat

The term ‘global climate crisis’ is often associated with expensive or complex solutions, but could the answer to combating the problem lie in something as simple as food stamps?

How much attention do you pay to a menu when you go to a restaurant?

For some of us, food is little more than a passing consideration, used only as fuel. For others, it’s more a case of living to eat – people traveling to find the tastiest morsels on offer across the globe.

Regardless of where you stand on the matter, everyone’s relationship with food has undeniably changed in recent years.

As the global climate crisis continues to – literally – heat up, consumers are more aware than ever of the impact our food choices can have on the planet’s decline.

Scientists have discovered that food systems worldwide are responsible for a staggering third of all greenhouse gas emissions.

This is mainly due to meat production, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by global leaders. The Paris Agreement’s goal of a 40% reduction in these toxic emissions has led experts to insist that the world’s population must reduce meat consumption.

But despite these constant warnings, many consumers are instantly turned off by the very idea of ​​embracing vegetarianism or a vegan diet, perhaps fearful of an apparent stigma — real or fake.

Interestingly, it seems that for some, that kind of avoidance is due to something as simple as food labeling.

Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have delved into the subject through food-based experiments.

PhD student Alex Berke teamed up with Kent Larson, the director of the City Science Group at the university, and published a paper titled “Tthe negative impact of vegetarian and vegan labels: Results from randomized controlled experiments with US consumers”.

A simple – but effective – study

As part of the research, Berke conducted several controlled experiments to investigate resistance to plant-based options.

She wanted to test a hypothesis suggesting that language and labels play an important role in deterring consumers from certain types of food.

Berke’s research question: “Do vegan and vegetarian labels typically found on menus negatively impact people’s likelihood of choosing these more sustainable options?”

The answer? A resounding “yes”.

The experiments were conducted with the help of unwitting members of the MIT Media Lab.

Berke conducted her studies via RSVP forms for events held at the lab where food was served.

On each occasion, participants were asked to choose between two menu options.

Unbeknownst to the participants, there were two versions of the form.

One version – shown to one half of the test subjects – had a ‘vegan’ label on one of the meal options, while the other – shown to the remaining group – did not.

Berke discovered that when people saw the “vegan” label, they were significantly less likely to choose that option.

Interestingly, there was a significant increase in people choosing the vegan option when it didn’t have a label.

When Berke expanded the experiments to a wider American audience, she found that the trend continued.

Again, this time via an online survey, US consumers were significantly less likely to choose an option when it had a ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ label and had far fewer concerns when the labels were excluded.

From this, Berke could conclude that vegetarian and vegan labels undoubtedly do more harm than good in the quest to get people to eat fewer meat products.

How this research can help fight climate change

In the published study, she suggests that the practice should be phased out to help guide American consumers toward reduced consumption of animals and their byproducts.

Typically, conversations around food sustainability tend to focus on expensive or complex solutions, but Berke’s research, she says, has shed light on a much simpler approach.

Scientists from all over the globe constantly insist that reducing consumption is crucial to mitigating the climate crisis.

There is a long tradition of men relying on eating meat to maintain their ‘masculinity’. The study made this clear, with male participants showing a significantly higher preference for options containing meat compared to other participants.

For concerned vegans or vegetarians, the research makes it clear that the practice of removing food labels would not have a negative impact on these groups, finding that they were not more likely to choose dishes with meat when the labels were removed.

Berke and Larson’s paper highlights extensive global research into the catastrophic possibilities for the earth if our food systems continued along their current path.

Aside from behavioral scientists and proponents of nudge theory perhaps, who would have thought that something as simple as labeling could have such an impact on potentially reversing climate change?

While there are no firm plans to put the research into practice in the US or even the rest of the world, it’s an interesting, relatively simplistic take on the question that continues to resonate with canine researchers and the public alike.

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