Describing food as “field-grown” rather than “meat-free” makes people twice as likely to choose vegetarian options and reduce their environmental impact, an experiment has found.

The experiment, run by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in collaboration with the World Resource Institute’s (WRI) Better Buying Lab, explored how language could be used to encourage non-vegetarians to choose plant-based and therefore more environmentally sustainable options from cafe and restaurant menus.

Consumers were tested on options such as whether they would rather eat a “meat-free breakfast” or a “feel-good fry-up”.

Source: Behavioural Insights TeamSource: Behavioural Insights Team

Toby Park, head of sustainability at BIT, said: “Our early results suggest ‘field-grown’ is a good alternative to ‘meat-free’ and, in general, more indulgent names outperform conventional terminology for vegetarian meals.”

The findings have since been replicated in UK cafes, and BIT is now supporting the WRI with a similar programme of work in the US.

The experiment is part of an investigation by BIT – originally set up as Whitehall’s “nudge unit” to use behavioural science to promote cost-effective improvements to lives and public services – into the sustainability of diets and eating habits.

The unit will publish a report in the coming months on applying behavioural insights to sustainable diets, which will include “reflecting on the rationale for government intervention”.

Mr Park said: “Livestock production for meat and dairy is a disproportionate contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation (to make way for grazing land), freshwater use (for irrigation), and pollution of our waterways (from fertilisers and other chemicals).

“In theory, our diets and eating habits can be easily changed. In practice, it is an emotive, difficult subject – rooted in culture, identity, strong personal tastes, and an aversion to being told what we should eat.

“That’s why in the coming months we are publishing a major new report on applying behavioural insights to sustainable diets, looking at what does and doesn’t work, but also reflecting on the rationale for government intervention.

“It’s a sensitive subject, but a debate we think needs to be had.”