The executive director of the Good Food Institute points to a study showing a separate vegetarian section on a menu cut sales by more than half.
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If you’ve ever eaten at a quality vegan restaurant with a non-vegan, you’ve likely heard this statement: “Man, this stuff is amazing for vegan food!” That final qualifier underscores an interesting contradiction recently put forth by an expert in the field of food sustainability: The best way to sell more vegetarian and vegan food might be to not even point out that its vegetarian or vegan at all.

Bruce Friedrich is the co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the sustainability of our food system by promoting plant-based foods and clean meat. In a recent conversation with FoodNavigator-USA, he presented what would at first blush seem like a very counterintuitive solution to selling more vegetarian and vegan food. “We recommend companies avoid any ‘v’ word and focus instead on the health value of the product, the protein content and so on,” he said. “Labeling a product ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ is taken to mean it is only for vegans or vegetarians.”

To back his assertion, Friedrich cited a study from last year showing that dishes that were included on the main menu but were marked with a “v” as “suitable for vegetarians” were ordered over twice as often as when those exact same items were listed in a separate section labeled “Vegetarian Dishes.” Friedrich also speculated, “Absent that (v) and we suspect that sales would have gone up even more.”

The underlying premise of Friedrich’s argument is that non-vegetarians and non-vegans have an inherent bias against choosing foods they believe are intended for those with a diet different than their own, even though these biased eaters might otherwise eat this dish. “My guess is that if ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan’ represent distinct populations, then those would not be the most inclusive way to market a product,” he told FoodNavigator. “In terms of marketing, ‘plant-based protein’ seems to be the current consensus term for reaching non-vegetarians.”

And what about vegans? How will they know what to eat? “Vegans are sure to find any appropriate product,” Friedrich points out, “they don’t need special labeling.”