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  • Writer's pictureElina Halonen

Does information change behaviour? Some evidence from food labelling studies

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Behaviour change isn't just limited to "nudges" - providing information can change behaviour too. A new study using mock-ups of menus in Behavioural Public Policy suggests that a simple change to food labelling might help shift some people (it's never everyone!) to choose differently.

The menus presented to participants in three conditions

My takeaways on this study:

  1. The difference between the social proof & eco-label (vs control) is small, but it's difficult to use a "most popular" label at scale. Only a few items can be labelled that, whereas the eco-labels can be used across the menu to shift people to more sustainable options overall - when looking at the shift from beef to chicken OR veggie option, the change is 15%.

  2. Eco-labels are more transparent and maintain the individual's agency whereas a social proof "nudge" can feel manipulative because it's been so overused. No surprise then that people had a stronger negative reaction (reactance) to the social nudge label compared to the eco-label. In addition, around 90% in all conditions supported the idea of food being eco-labelled whereas only around 50% in all conditions supported the social proof nudge.

  3. While it's only one study with a range of limitations, but it's a nice illustration of the principle that simply providing information can indeed change people's behaviour - it's not all about intention-action gap etc. Using a tool like COM-B is particularly useful for the understanding the behavioural challenge more holistically.

The authors do note that their results have limits in generalisation because of the online methodology and also caution that "our results should not be generalised to all eco-labels; only those which facilitate comparison across products, such as scales or rankings."

The reality is that no intervention is going to shift everyone - some people will change their behaviour but not all. For me, the BPS article is focusing on the wrong thing - the bigger takeaway isn't the shift from beef to vegetarian, but the shift from beef to chicken. My understanding is that the negative environmental impact is bigger for beef than chicken, so it seems like that shift is at least a step in the right direction.

The article also referenced a 2022 white paper by World Resources Institute with results from an online survey-based randomized trial assessing the impact of 10 uniquely themed sustainability messages on consumers’ restaurant menu selections. Their results suggest that "displaying thoughtfully framed environmental messages on restaurant menus can help to nudge diners to order more vegetarian entrees when eating out" and specifically that communicating the benefits of plantbased dishes influenced choices toward more sustainable options. The top 3 messages that outperformed the control were:

  1. Small changes, big impact: Each of us can make a positive difference for the planet. Swapping just one meat dish for a plant-based one saves greenhouse gas emissions that are equivalent to the energy used to charge your phone for two years. Your small change can make a big difference. (+12%)

  2. Joining a movement: 90% of Americans are making the change to eat less meat. Join this growing movement and choose plant-based dishes that have less impact on the climate and are kinder to the planet. (+10%)

  3. Health and environment: You will be surprised how much positive impact plant-based food can have on both the planet and your health. Choose plant-based dishes to lower your carbon footprint and improve nutrition. It’s about goodness for you and the planet. (+10%)

Source: "Environmental messages promote plant-based food choices: an online restaurant menu study", World Resources Institute, Feb 2022.


If you're interested in food labelling more broadly, here's an FSA rapid evidence review (PDF) covering these questions:

  • What impact (if any) does food labelling have on consumer decision-making?

  • What are the most persuasive aspects of food labelling that impact consumer decision-making?

  • What are the reasons behind the persuasiveness of some food labelling to change behaviour?

  • Which factors limit the persuasiveness of food labelling on behaviour change?

The FSA also has a broader rapid evidence review on the Psychology of Food Choice (PDF) which looks at these questions:

  • What are the key psychological processes that we should consider when thinking about our food choices?

  • What characteristics of a person, place or product can influence these processes?

  • What approaches to influence food choice have been tried and found effective – and what is the psychology behind them?

  • Which approaches to promoting positive food choices show the greatest promise? ‘Positive choices’ in this case infer those leading to better health or sustainability.

  • How have inequalities been incorporated into research, and where is greater consideration needed?

I also worked with Bright Harbour on a on a project for FSA called "Psychologies of Food Choice: Public views and experiences around meat and dairy consumption". In this project we used the COM-B model to set up the research and throughout the analysis process as well as in the final reporting. You can download the report here.

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