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Nudging Can Encourage Sustainable Food Choices

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Aug 24, 2020


At TDL, our role is to translate science. This article is part of a series on cutting edge research that has the potential to create positive social impact. While the research is inherently specific, we believe that the insights gleaned from each piece in this series are relevant to behavioral science practitioners in many different fields. At TDL, we are always looking for ways to translate science into impact. If you would like to chat with us about a potential collaboration, feel free to contact us.


As a socially-conscious applied research firm, TDL is interested in connecting cutting-edge research with real-world applications. In particular, we’re interested in behavioral science interventions that create healthier societies. One way of achieving this goal is to modify choice architecture to nudge consumers in healthier, more sustainable directions.

To hear directly from someone working on these exact kinds of issues, we reached out to Dr. Jolien Vandenbroele, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Marketing, Innovation and Organisation at the University of Ghent. In this study, Dr. Vandenbroele and a team of researchers sought to uncover how modifications to choice architecture could impact consumers’ willingness to swap meat for non-meat substitutes.

A link to the full study is available here: Mock meat in the butchery: nudging consumers toward meat substitutes

A full version of some of Jolien’s other studies are available here:

Nudging to get our food choices on a sustainable track

Food-tastic choice!: nudging to get our food choices on a healthy and sustainable track

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Julian: How would you describe your research in a nutshell?

Jolien: How is it possible that we always end up with products in our basket that we did not plan to buy? Supermarkets appear to use smart techniques to steer our shopping behavior. But what if these techniques would not only be used to trick us into buying more candy, but also into more sustainable products? My research focuses on giving consumers a little ‘push’ towards more sustainable products in the supermarket by adapting the store layout. These interventions are called ‘nudges’ and are characterized by being cheap, easy-to-implement, and never restricting freedom of choice. Think about repositioning products on the shelf, so that the more sustainable ones are easier to reach and more visible than less sustainable products. 

Meat substitutes are products that look and taste like meat, but are completely plant-based, such as veggie burgers. As such, meat substitutes are mostly sold in a separate, vegetarian section in the supermarket. But is this actually the best position for the product to maximize sales? We found out that most of the people that buy meat substitutes are actually not vegetarians, but flexitarians! Flexitarians are people that do eat meat, but they are willing to skip meat once in a while and replace it with veggies. 

Julian: What did you do with this information?

Jolien: We hypothesized that there would be more meat substitutes sold when they were positioned next to the meat product that they are imitating, rather than when they are placed in a vegetarian-only section. This would firstly increase the visibility among flexitarians, frequent buyers of the product, as they mostly skip the vegetarian section. When the meat substitute is placed in the butchery, a section they visit more frequently, they will more easily notice the meat substitute. Second, we believe that placing them next to each other, in a pairwise presentation, will help shoppers to actually consider the veggie burger as an alternative for the meat product. By seeing them next to each other, the meat substitute will be taken more easily into the set of options customers are considering for their dinner: will we eat chicken, a burger, or… a veggie burger? So by increasing the visibility (nudge 1) and placing the products pairwise (nudge 2), we expected a boost in the sales of meat substitutes. 

Julian: What rough process did you follow?

Jolien: In the first study, we set up a field experiment in collaboration with a big European supermarket chain. In one store, we adapted the store-lay for one month so that the meat substitutes were placed next to the product that they were imitating in the butchery, for example, the vegetarian curry next to the chicken curry. During this month, we tracked sales of the meat substitutes and compared it to the sales of the month before. As an additional control, we also compared these numbers to the sales of meat substitutes in eight similar stores, where no interventions took place. In a second lab study, we created a mini-store where we manipulated the effect of visibility and the pairwise presentation independently by changing the set-up, to examine the individual effect of each nudge on product choice. For example, for some participants in the mini-store, the meat substitutes were highly visible, while they were less visible for other participants. 

Julian: What did you end up finding out?

Jolien: We found in our field experiment that more meat substitutes were sold (almost three times more) when they were placed next to the meat product in the butchery. Sales of meat substitutes were enhanced, relative to both past sales in the experimental store and sales in eight other control stores that serve as benchmarks. Interestingly, no backfire effect was observed, as meat product sales did not increase significantly. In the follow-up lab experiment, we found that both individual nudges, visibility and the pairwise presentation, have a positive effect on the increase of meat substitutes. 

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Julian: How do you think this is relevant to an applied setting?

Jolien: The production of meat, and especially red meat, is a process that heavily affects our environment, as it evokes high CO2-emissions. To preserve our natural resources in the future, we will have to adapt our food habits and opt for more sustainable food choices. However, old habits die hard, and this is no different for food. If retailers would offer meat substitutes next to the meat products they are imitating, more shoppers would find their way to these vegetarian products. Such a mixed assortment would nudge shoppers to purchase more sustainable food products. 

Julian: What do you think some exciting directions are for research stemming from your study? 

Jolien: Meat substitutes are known as a ‘first step’ towards a diet with more vegetarian products because the barrier to try them is quite low. This is because meat substitutes look familiar, which makes people more willing to try them compared to completely novel products. It would be interesting to explore how we can take the next step, and let people explore vegetarian products that do not have meat look-alikes, such as tofu and halloumi. This is quite a challenge, as these products are still mostly unknown to the big audience and so the willingness to try them is lower. 

About the Authors

Jolien Vandenbroele

Jolien Vandenbroele

University of Gent

Jolien is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of Marketing, Innovation and Organisation, which is in the faculty of Economics and Business Administration at the University of Gent. She has her Ph.D., as well as a Master’s and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Gent. Her research focuses on experimental applications of behavioral science in marketing research, especially in food sales and sustainability.

Julian Hazell portrait

Julian Hazell

McGill University

Julian is passionate about understanding human behavior by analyzing the data behind the decisions that individuals make. He is also interested in communicating social science insights to the public, particularly at the intersection of behavioral science, microeconomics, and data science. Before joining The Decision Lab, he was an economics editor at Graphite Publications, a Montreal-based publication for creative and analytical thought. He has written about various economic topics ranging from carbon pricing to the impact of political institutions on economic performance. Julian graduated from McGill University with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Management.

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