How strategic labelling can increase your plant-based sales

By Makayla Dewit

Imagine that you sit down at a restaurant, examine the menu, and see these two choices listed: low-fat vegan pasta and lemon-pesto rotini with fried capers. Which sounds more appetizing to you? It is almost certainly the second one.

This example highlights the importance of thoughtfully labelling food and menu items to make them more appealing to consumers.

Professionals in the food industry already know how important nomenclature is. However, naming plant-based dishes is especially critical. Fully plant-based meals may still be unfamiliar to some diners, so the names play an important role in enticing consumer choice.

Importance of plant-based food

Plant-based food is the way of the future. Our current resource-intensive, meat-focused food system will not be able to adequately feed our growing population without devastating effects on the environment. It is estimated that by 2050, we will need to produce 56 per cent more food than today.

Producing more resource-intensive food on our planet is just not sustainable. In order to improve animal welfare, support and feed future generations, and lower our greenhouse gas emissions to meet agreed-upon climate targets, our food system must move toward less resource-intensive plant foods like vegetables, legumes and pulses, grains, and seeds.

This is where food labelling comes in. By including accurate and appealing labels on plant-based food items, consumers will be more enticed to choose these options at restaurants, other foodservice establishments, and retail settings. This, coupled with businesses and governments recognizing the viability of plant-based food offerings, allows us to advance towards a more humane, sustainable, and health-conscious food system to feed our growing population.

Plant-forward naming tips

There are a variety of well-researched strategies to use naming and labelling to boost consumer interest in plant-forward dishes. For instance:

  • The World Resources Institute suggests using descriptive terms that highlight the flavour or provenance of the dish or the eating experience. For example, an American chain of bakery-café fast-casual restaurants changed the name of its low-fat vegetarian black bean soup to Cuban black bean soup to reflect the dish’s heritage. In doing so, the company increased sales of this item by 13 per cent.
  • Based on a study of nearly 6,000 participants, WRI also suggests adding sustainability messages to menus to encourage consumers to choose more plant-forward offerings. For example, sales of plant-forward dishes nearly doubled when a restaurant included a simple message explaining that swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years.
  • The Good Food Institute suggests using positive framing to advertise what the dish offers (use words like made from plants or plant-forward) instead of what the dish does not contain (like meat-free or reduced meat).

The point is that food establishments should strive to make plant-based options sound delicious while also making them a normal part of their offerings. This way, more people, regardless of whether they include animal products in their diet or not, can sample and enjoy plant-forward fare.

Familiarity in labelling

There’s been some debate about what words should be used to describe plant-based food options. For example, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which oversees consumer packaged good labelling in Canada, does not allow plant-based milks to be labelled as milk or plant-based cheeses to be labelled as cheese.

Allowing plant-based products to be branded with familiar terms like burger, milk, or cheese, accompanied by a clear notice that the item is plant-based, carries important benefits. These familiar terms provide consumers with a sense of food familiarity and likeness, allowing them to better imagine what the experience will be like, as well as how to prepare and enjoy them.

A study by Cornell University found that omitting words traditionally associated with animal products from the names of plant-based products causes consumers to be significantly more confused about the taste and uses of these products.

Thankfully, the tides may be changing in Canada. A small plant-based cheese company based out of Québec was sued by the city of Montréal for using the term cream cheese on labels for its non-dairy cashew cream cheese. After a four-year legal battle, the case was recently dropped and the company was able to continue using the term on their labels, clearly stating on their packaging that it is a non-dairy product.

This precedent could encourage owners and operators to help consumers feel comfortable trying something new by describing their plant-based items in familiar terms, conventionally associated with animal products.

Labels matter

How a dish or product is named, labelled, or described is important for consumers and businesses, and can make a positive impact. Plant-forward eating is key to a more humane and sustainable future that can feed our growing population while also being kinder to animals. By encouraging consumers to choose more ethical, nutritious, and environmentally friendly options, foodservice establishments and regulatory bodies have a central role to play.

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Makayla Dewit is the Forward Food program Specialist at Humane Society International/Canada, which helps institutions across Canada increase their offerings of delicious and nutritious plant-based options that are better for animals, the environment and human health.