Nudging makes us eat more vegetarian food


The way we eat has a big impact on the environment. New research by the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg shows how simple methods can influence restaurant diners to reduce their meat consumption in favour of vegetarian food, resulting in reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

“The preference for meat is not as strong and stable as many people think and we should not assume that we will eat as much meat as we do today. What we choose to buy is decided not only by price and availability but also by the environment around the decision. My research shows that it is fully possible to design a decision environment that leads to the vegetarian option being chosen more frequently,” says Verena Kurz, researcher in behavioural economics.

In her doctoral thesis, Verena Kurz has experimented with so-called “nudges” in the restaurant environment. Nudging is about using simple methods to influence people’s choices, without changing the selection on offer or the prices of the various alternatives.

In this experiment, the vegetarian option is presented by changing the order on the menu and making the dish easily visible to the customers. The result is a clear increase in the proportion of vegetarian lunches sold. On average the proportion of vegetarian dishes sold rose from 14 to 20 per cent.

“Completely against expectations, it was found that the effect increased over time. During the three months of the experiment, the restaurant diners chose the vegetarian option increasingly often. This had no negative effect on profits, because vegetarian food can also be good for business,” says Verena Kurz.

Verena Kurz has some concrete advice for restaurant owners who want to sell more vegetarian food.

• Do not market the food as vegetarian, but as dishes among the others. They will then be noticed by all the diners, not just the vegetarians.
• Present the vegetarian options as advantageously as possible. Make the dishes visible, so that those who are not familiar with vegetarian food can see what it looks like.
• Do not make it more difficult to order vegetarian dishes than other dishes. For example, diners should not need to ask after vegetarian options, they should be part of the normal menu.

“To succeed in changing behaviour with the aid of nudging, we must feel our way forward and look carefully at the specific context,” Verena Kurz believes. “I hope that my research results can show the authorities, restaurant owners and others who work with food that meat consumption can be reduced with the aid of small and simple steps, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

About the experiment
Nudging was tested at a university restaurant in Gothenburg, Sweden, over a three month period in 2015-2016. The vegetarian option was presented by changing the order on the menu and placing the dish where it was clearly visible to the customers. Another university restaurant was used as a control.

The results show that nudging increased the proportion of vegetarian lunches sold by about 6 percentage points. The behavioural change was partially persistent. Once conditions were returned to normal, the proportion of vegetarian lunches sold was still 4 percentage points higher than before the experiment. The change in meat consumption meant that emissions of greenhouse gases from the sale of food fell by about 4.5 per cent.

The thesis
"Essays on behavioural economics: Nudges, food consumption and procedural fairness” was presented at a dissertation on 13 October 2017 at the Department of Economics, School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg.

Link to thesis:

Verena Kurz, +46 31-786 2648, mobile +46 76-5850174,

Watch video with Verena Kurz