Climate Change Impact Information Menus Sway Diners’ Choices

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By Alan Mozes

Health Day Reporter

THURSDAY, December 29, 2022 (HealthDay News) — Adding climate impact labels to fast food menus may have a major impact on whether or not consumers go green when eating out, new research suggests.

The finding is based on an online survey that asked consumers to order virtual meals after randomly browsing menus that either had some form of climate labeling or none at all.

The result: Compared to those who chose from a regular, unlabelled menu, 23.5% more of those who ordered from a menu that featured the least eco-friendly options chose a “sustainable” meal. (For example, this is another way of saying they avoid red meat — a food whose production has a major impact on the climate.)

Similarly, about 10% more respondents made more sustainable choices when reviewing menus that displayed the greenest dishes available.

“Sustainability or climate change menu labels are relatively new and have not yet been implemented in fast-food restaurants,” said lead author Julia Wolfson, associate professor of human nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. “However, other types of labels, such as calorie labels, have been seen in restaurants for some time.”

Other studies have shown that such labels influence food ordering decisions.

With this in mind, her team wanted to see if climate labels could be just as effective. And, if so, “whether positively or negatively designed labels are more effective in influencing consumer behavior toward more sustainable choices,” Wolfson said.

More than 5,000 adults aged 18 and over took part in the online survey in March and April this year. About two-thirds were white, 12% black, and 17% Hispanic.

They were asked to imagine they were in a restaurant to order dinner after reading a 14-choice fast-food menu.

Menu items included beef burgers, beef substitute burgers, chicken and fish sandwiches, chicken nuggets, and a variety of salads.

Each participant was randomly presented with only one of three menus, where each dining option was clearly identified by a clickable photo when ordering.

A menu included standard (carbon neutral) QR codes under each meal photo. The second included red labels reading “high climate impact” under dishes containing beef. A third menu featured green labels reading “low climate impact” below the dishes that did not contain beef.

“We found that both the high and low climate impact labels encourage more sustainable food choices compared to the control,” Wolfson said.

The researchers also found that people who made more sustainable choices also perceived them to be healthier. That suggests that climate-friendly fast-food labeling could not only be a win for the environment, but also for the waistline.

Still, none of the encouraging results were derived from ordering decisions made at real restaurants.

“Further research is needed to understand the most effective and practical label designs and how such labels would affect food choices in real-world settings such as fast food restaurants, other restaurants, grocery stores and cafeterias,” Wolfson said.

Two outside experts viewed the survey results with skepticism.

Connie Diekman — a St. Louis-based food and nutritionist and former president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — said it remains to be seen how effective such labels could be in practice.

“This study was an online survey, so people weren’t in the restaurant making food choices,” Diekman said. “The question mark on impact is will people do this in the restaurant?”

In her experience as a nutritionist, people who eat out often focus on the occasion rather than the nutritional implications of their food choices.

“I would wonder if that’s the case [would] occur here,” Diekman said, adding that human behavior doesn’t always agree with research studies.

Lona Sandon is the program director in the Division of Clinical Nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. She wondered who would decide which foods were labeled as “green” or not.

“I expect there will be a high level of scientific disagreement on this,” she noted.

That notwithstanding, Sandon doubted that such labels would significantly influence people to make greener food choices outside of a restaurant, thereby limiting the overall environmental impact of any restaurant labeling effort.

“In theory, that sounds like a nice idea,” she said. “In reality, I think it’s going to be a bit messy. Restaurants will struggle to comply, and regulators will struggle to find a way to define a climate-friendly food.”

Sandon said a more effective strategy would be to look at the food system as a whole in terms of sustainability and climate friendliness, rather than just focusing on a single food item on a menu.

The results were published on December 27th JAMA network open.

More information

You can find out more about food labeling at Food Print.

SOURCE: Julia Wolfson, PhD, MPP, Associate Professor of Human Nutrition, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore; Connie Diekman, RD, MEd, Food and Nutrition Advisor, St. Louis, Past President, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; Lona Sandon, PhD, MEd, RDN, LD, Program Director and Assistant Professor, Clinical Nutrition, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas; JAMA network openDecember 27, 2022


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Climate Change Impact Information Menus Sway Diners’ Choices
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