The Dos and Don'ts of Naming Menu Items

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Getting meat-eaters to enjoy plant-based foods could be a matter of semantics.

In the food business, coming up with a delicious dish is only the first step. Next it has to be named in such a way that people will want to order it. This is a challenge for many chefs and restaurateurs, particularly those who are focused on healthy, planet-friendly eating.

Research has shown that customers have negative reactions to certain well-intentioned terms that often appear on menus. According to a new report by the World Resources Institute's Better Buying Lab, words like 'meat-free,' 'vegan,' 'vegetarian,' and anything that promotes healthfulness are in fact turn-offs for diners. From the report:

"It's counterproductive to communicate that a food is 'free' of meat if the goal is to appeal to more meat-eaters. Leading with information about what something will not be like also limits the brain's ability to positively imagine how it might taste... Vegetarian diets are also seen by many as boring and bland, and meat-free diets not tasty enough."

The Better Buying Lab found that placing meat-based and vegetarian options in separate categories on a menu greatly diminished sales. Meat-eaters are 56 percent less likely to order a plant-rich dish if it's contained within a "vegetarian" box. Furthermore, emphasizing the healthy qualities of a dish make it less appetizing. For American and British eaters, "healthy doesn't sell." (Coincidentally, it does in France.)

So what words should you use?

The report gave suggestions for positive terminology. Provenance, or emphasizing the geographical location from which a particular flavor comes, greatly increases people's interest. For example, one Panera location changed its "Low Fat Vegetarian Black Bean Soup" to "Cuban Black Bean Soup". Sales went up by 13 percent. NPR explained,

"'Cuban', in a lot of folks' minds, when they react to that they think of a flavor profile. They think of a little bit of heat, a little bit of spice, and that makes people hungry."

Using flavor in a name piques interest, as well. The tastier a dish sounds and the easier to imagine in one's mouth, the more likely one is to order. Founders of plant-based meal delivery service, allplants, told the researchers,

"When we started out, we were using more ingredient specific names like ‘Black Bean Chili' and ‘Beets Bourguignon,' but we've learned that names highlighting the delicious, distinctive flavors we use, such as ‘Smoky Soul Chili' and ‘Fiery Jerk Jackfruit,' are much more successful."

Finally, emphasizing a food's look and feel makes it more appealing. From the report, "A dish's flavor, appearance and mouth-feel can dramatically affect diners' preferences, and plant-rich foods are delicious and distinctive in these areas." Words like 'creamy', 'crunchy', 'warming', 'smooth', 'sticky', and anything with color are positive additions.

It's an intriguing area of research that could help propel plant-based eating into the mainstream, which needs to happen if we hope to combat climate change.

Learn more at World Resources Institute.