(Reuters Health) - When cafeterias sell more vegetarian meals, people will indeed purchase more meat-free entrees, a recent study suggests.
Researchers examined data on 94,644 meals purchased in 2017 at three university cafeterias. When the cafeterias doubled the proportion of vegetarian meals available from 25% to 50%, vegetarian meal sales rose by 41% to 79%.
“We can’t be sure exactly why this effect occurs,” said study leader Emma Garnett of the University of Cambridge in the UK.
“It could be that everyone picks an option that appeals to them. When 50% of the options are vegetarian, a student’s preferred option is simply more likely to be vegetarian,” Garnett said by email.
“Or perhaps having half of the options vegetarian and half meat signals to diners that choosing a vegetarian meal is normal, whereas only one vegetarian option might imply that the dish is “other” or added as an afterthought,” Garnett added.
In absolute terms, the proportion of vegetarian meals sold in cafeterias after the menu changes rose by about 8 to 15 percentage points.
Linking sales data to diners’ previous meal purchase habits showed that people who bought the fewest number of vegetarian meals before the menu changes were the ones who increased their consumption of non-meat entrees the most afterward.
Total sales remained constant before and after cafeterias increased vegetarian fare, suggesting that people did indeed replace some meat entrees with plant-based alternatives.
Shifting people in higher income countries toward more plant-based diets would benefit public health and the environment, Garnett and colleagues write in PNAS.
“Eating much less meat is vital to avoid climate breakdown and there are simple things cafeterias can do to help us,” Garnett said.
Plant-based diets are tied to a lower risk of health problems like heart disease, diabetes, obesity and certain cancers - and pretty much anyone can eat this way, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
That’s because people who adopt a plant-based diet tend to consume more fruits and vegetables, fewer sweets and salty snacks, and smaller amounts of fats.
Consumers who want healthier and climate-friendlier meal options can ask cafeterias to add more vegan and vegetarian options to the menu, replacing some meat options, Garnett advised.
“Meat needs to stop hogging the limelight and vegetarian dishes should be landing more starring roles,” Garnett said.
One limitation of the current study is that results from cafeterias in college dormitories might be hard to replicate with older consumers in other environments.
“College students are more open to change,” said Dr. Margo Denke, a retired professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center Dallas who wasn’t involved in the study.
Still, consumers can reduce their meat consumption by opting for familiar foods minus the animal protein, Denke said by email.
“A meatless meal can be mac and cheese, a vegetarian pizza, a mixed green salad with cheese, a cheese omelet, curried lentils and rice,” Denke said. “It doesn’t have to be (vegetarian) burgers.”
SOURCE: bit.ly/2Wncog9 PNAS, online September 30, 2019.