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  • Paul Francis

Unveiling the Paradox: How Labelling Impacts Vegan Food Choices

In the ever-evolving landscape of dietary preferences and consumer behaviour, the perception of vegan food has recently taken a fascinating turn. A groundbreaking study conducted by MIT Media Lab in America has shed light on a paradoxical phenomenon: labelling food items as ‘vegan’ can inadvertently deter people from choosing them. This intriguing revelation challenges the conventional wisdom surrounding vegan marketing strategies and prompts a closer look at the way we present plant-based options to a diverse audience.

Unveiling the research findings

At MIT, where innovation is the norm, researchers embarked on an investigation that would spark a revolution in the way we perceive vegan cuisine. The experiment unfolded during the university's events, where diverse food options were provided for attendees. One particular food item, a veggie wrap, took the spotlight. In one instance, it was presented as a ‘Veggie Wrap (VEGAN)’, while in another, the labelling was omitted.

Differences in Menu options when the word Vegan is added.

The results were striking. When the veggie wrap bore the ‘vegan’ label, only 36% of event-goers chose it. However, when the same dish lacked the ‘vegan’ label, a significant 60% opted for it. The trend persisted across repeated trials, solidifying the notion that labelling plays a pivotal role in food selection. The labelled version garnered a mere 33% preference, while its unlabelled counterpart dominated at 63%.

Chart of clicks on a MIT vegan menu study.

Decoding the labelling paradox

The study's implications reach far beyond the MIT campus, hinting at a broader consumer behaviour trend. Surprisingly, individuals seemed more inclined to opt for vegetarian and vegan options when these choices were not explicitly labelled as such. This phenomenon invites an exploration into the intricate psychology behind dietary decisions.

One possible explanation for this counterintuitive response is that foods labelled as ‘vegan’ are often marketed towards non-vegans seeking to reduce meat consumption. However, these products fail to resonate with authentic vegans who are uninterested in imitation of meat-based products. Moreover, the attempt to replicate meat's taste and texture often falls short, leading meat eaters to dismiss such products without a second thought. This divergence in expectations inadvertently distanced potential consumers from vegan choices.

The Greggs’ paradigm: A blueprint for success

As the world grapples with the implications of this study, an exemplary model emerges from an unexpected source: Greggs, a prominent fast-food chain in the UK. In 2019, during the Veganuary campaign, Greggs introduced the vegan sausage roll. This temporary addition to the menu achieved resounding success and has since become a permanent fixture. The secret to its triumph lies in its authenticity.

Greggs Vegan Sausage roll

Unlike many vegan alternatives that aim to replicate meat's taste and appearance, the vegan sausage roll at Greggs embraces its unique identity. The pastry, while butter-free, mirrors the flakiness of its traditional counterpart. However, it's the filling that truly sets it apart. Instead of attempting to mimic meat, the vegan sausage roll boasts a distinctive flavour profile that stands on its own. This departure from imitation aligns perfectly with consumers' evolving expectations and is a likely contributor to the product's sustained popularity.

A new chapter for vegan cuisine

It's clear that the path forward for vegan food is paved with authenticity. The notion that a vegan product must replicate meat to succeed is being challenged by consumers seeking genuine, innovative experiences. This paradigm shift invites food producers and marketers to reimagine their approach and prioritise the essence of plant-based cuisine over mimicry.

As society becomes increasingly conscious of its dietary choices, the demand for authentic, sustainable, and nourishing options continues to rise. By embracing this shift in perspective, the culinary world can create a more inclusive, appealing narrative for vegan cuisine—one that captures the hearts and taste buds of a diverse array of consumers. The era of labelling-induced hesitation is coming to an end, making room for a future where food choices are guided by flavour, quality, and integrity rather than preconceived notions.


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