Encourage Plant-Based Diets with Choice Architecture, Not Bans or Marketing Stunts

This spring, Burger King transformed their largest location in my home city of Copenhagen into a fully plant-based restaurant. The switch, which ran from mid-March to mid-April, followed similar plant-based transformations in Vienna, London, and Lisbon last year. When I heard the news, I was curious to try the plant-based nuggets and “cheese” burger. Although I don’t typically have fast food for lunch, one day I took a break from work and decided to try it out.

That same evening, my friend, walking home from the bar, stumbled into the same Burger King to grab a late-night snack. To his surprise, his favorite Bacon King was now a plant-based Whopper, and the BBQ Chicken Wings were nowhere to be found. He went to McDonald’s across the street.

The difference between me and my friend is that I have been vegan for over a decade while he usually removes the piece of lettuce before biting into his beef burger. While I decided to go to Burger King because of the plant-based options, he left because of them.

Burger King and other chains like Domino’s and Taco Bell are using time-limited specials or plant-based transformations like the one in Copenhagen to test new products and market themselves as leaders in plant-based fast food.

Estimates show that meat accounts for around 60 percent of planet-heating gases from food production. Producing 1 kg of beef creates 70 kg of greenhouse gases—so the Double Whopper, with 250 g of beef, comes in at around 17 kg of greenhouse gases. Switching to a popular plant-based meat alternative, such as an Impossible Burger patty, would reduce emissions by almost 90 percent.

We’d be naive to assume that sustainability is the driving force behind these brands’ decisions. Their bet is that it’s good business.

However, good business can also be good for the planet, especially given the growing market demand for plant-based options. Burger King set a goal of having a 50 percent meat free menu by 2030. If they were to meet that goal, they estimate they would cut their emissions by 41 percent.

But for these efforts to reduce total emissions, we need to increase the number of people who incorporate plant-based options into their diet, rather than moving people from one restaurant to another or channeling those who eat meat to restaurants that cater only to them. Given Burger King gained one customer (me) and lost another (my friend), it’s not clear that wholesale bans or time-limited transformations are wise choices for business or sustainability.

What is the best way to encourage more people to eat less meat? Should we go cold Tofurky by banning meat … Or should we add plant-based options to existing menus?

So what is the best way to encourage more people to eat less meat? Should we go cold Tofurky by banning meat in the form a fully plant-based restaurant, or similar, albeit less extreme, efforts of meat-free days and vegan-only menu card? Or should we add plant-based options to the existing menu?

We don’t need behavioral science to tell us that limiting choice by taking away certain products is going to be unpopular. It’s also likely ineffective. If people have the option to get around a ban, it might have no effect or even make the situation worse than it was before.

Fortunately, we can use psychologically informed policy measures, including some I have researched, to shift what we eat in restaurants to more climate friendly, plant-based options without alienating customers.

The problems with bans

Banning all non-plant-based options creates two main problems. First, it leads to self-selection of customers. Just as vegans won’t go to a steakhouse, those who are not already interested in eating plant-based will select out of the location. Even if someone is interested in trying a vegetarian or vegan option, the fact that their regular choices are unavailable deters them from entering the restaurant.

Second, taking away choice can lead to a backlash that adding choice doesn’t. If people feel that their freedom is threatened, they might display reactance—they might feel compelled to do the opposite to reestablish their autonomy.

For example, when Volkswagen, the German car manufacturer, decided to turn one of their 30 Wolfsburg canteens vegetarian in the summer of 2021 by taking “currywurst” off the menu, there was a media uproar. Opponents rallied around the hashtag #SaveTheCurrywurst. Volkswagen, which since 1973 produces not only cars but also sausages, said they were surprised by the intense negative publicity, as the decision was the result of increasing demand from their employees for more plant-based alternatives. Moreover, if someone was hungry for a currywurst, they only needed to go to one of the other 29 meat-serving canteens run by Volkswagen nearby.   

We need to increase the number of people who incorporate plant-based options into their diet, rather than moving people from one restaurant to another.

A year later, Vfl Wolfsburg, the primary soccer club in the Volkswagen area, was in the media for a similar reason. Wolfsburg teamed up with Oatly, the Swedish oat milk producer, to “take a stance for the climate” by becoming milk-free both in the stadium and in their football team’s cafeteria. This collaboration was part of their Sports for Climate Action membership, which is a commitment of the sports industry to reach zero emissions by 2040. Wolfsburg’s decision was marketed widely in the media and on their website as a multiyear commitment. However, a few days later, after intense pressure from the agricultural lobby and politicians, Wolfsburg announced that “there had been a misunderstanding” and that they would limit the milk-free initiative to one month only.

These two examples illustrate how the bigger the restriction in choice, the bigger the backlash and, unfortunately, the bigger the risk to progress overall.

What should restaurants do?

So what should restaurants who want to encourage customers to switch to more plant-based options do? Rather than limiting choice, I suggest that restaurants expand their plant-based selection and complement this expansion with changes to the choice architecture to encourage more sustainable food choices, without any bans.

Wagamama, an Asian food chain, offers a clever example of this approach by including all their plant-based dishes in the regular menu alongside meat-containing dishes, as well as having a separate vegan menu section. As a result, customers searching for plant-based options can easily locate them, while others may be encouraged to try something new.

A Swedish burger chain, Max Burgers, is also known for increasing choice rather than limiting it. Over the years, they have introduced more and more plant-based options to their menu, with the goal of selling a plant-based burger for every meat burger they sell. They were one of the first restaurants to implement nudges to encourage more sustainable food choices. Already in 2008, the year Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published the book Nudge, Max Burgers started placing labels on their menus stating how much of the greenhouse gas CO2 was produced to bring this dish to the table. Since then, they have been using nudges, such as setting the vegetarian burger as the default on their digital ordering stations, to increase the share of plant-based orders.

Rather than limiting choice, I suggest that restaurants expand their plant-based selection and complement this expansion with changes to the choice architecture to encourage more sustainable food choices.

In one of my own field studies, we wanted to know whether changing the order in which the meat and vegetarian options were presented would change customers’ choices. For three weeks, we worked with a popular business lunch restaurant in Gothenburg, Sweden, randomly handing out two versions of the same lunch menu and recording what customers ordered. One option listed the meat option first with the availability of a vegetarian alternative mentioned at the bottom, the other option listed the vegetarian option first with the availability of a meat alternative mentioned at the bottom (see image below). The restaurant normally has two dishes of the day on the menu, one with fish and one with meat. On request, they also made a vegetarian dish, which was similar to the meat dish and cost the same as the other two options.

When the meat option was listed first and the vegetarian choice was only listed as an alternative at the bottom of the menu, around two percent of customers ordered vegetarian. When the vegetarian option came first with meat listed as the alternative, around 20 percent of patrons ordered vegetarian.

The two lunch menus randomly passed out to customers at a restaurant in Gothenburg, Sweden. The Meat/Fish menu listed the meat option at the top and mentioned the possibility of a vegetarian alternative at the bottom. For the Vegetarian/Fish it was the opposite, with the vegetarian option featured at the top and a meat alternative mentioned at the bottom. Source: Gravert and Kurz (2019).

Placing a dish at the top of the menu turns the dish into the default choice to which other choices are compared. Most people read a menu from top to bottom and might stop as soon as they see something they like—especially when, as in our case, they are out for a quick business lunch and would rather focus on their companions than on studying the menu. Listing the meat as an alternative at the bottom of the menu also creates a small hassle cost of needing to ask the waiter for details. Some people might also understand the dish at the top to be a recommendation by the kitchen.

Additionally, we found no measurable effect on the number of customers at the restaurant; if anything, the number of customers in the vegetarian condition increased. The experiment illustrates that you don’t have to take meat off a menu completely if you want to reduce meat consumption; there are other ways to increase vegetarian dining, without risking a backlash.

Our result raises another interesting question—do people already want to eat more vegetarian but the current menu designs, canteen options, and defaults nudge them to eat more meat? If people had strong preferences for consuming meat, then changing the order on the menu or changing the default dish at a conference should not affect their choices. And yet, as a recent meta-analysis confirms, changing the default from meat to vegetarian has a consistently strong effect. 

Choice architecture, not bans

Eating a more plant-based diet is an easy and effective way to reduce our impact on the climate. Fast food chains, stadiums, and company canteens have enormous potential in changing the way we eat by bringing plant-based options to those who might not seek them out. It is crucial that these dining venues avoid self-selection and backfiring effects by limiting options. Adding new plant-based products and using choice architecture is more likely to be successful in terms of sustainability and business.

Having many plant-based options at every Burger King will affect food choices more than a fully plant-based Burger King for a single month. A vegan currywurst in all Volkswagen canteens and oat milk alongside cow’s milk at the Wolfsburg stadium will create less backlash and thus endure longer than trying to change too much and then being forced to revert to zero.

The Burger King in Copenhagen did end up keeping a few of the plant-based products on the menu. Perhaps I can coax my friend into sharing a box of plant-based nuggets. After all, there’s no lettuce removal required.