Climate Health

Climate impact labels on menus can impact food choices; study


HQ Team

January 3, 2023: Climate impact labels on menus are likely to affect consumers’ meal choices, according to a randomized clinical trial with 5049 US adults.

The study quizzed the participants about ordering from a fast-food menu consisting of burgers, salads and other products typical of takeaway restaurants. These items were placed against three labels: a QR code, or a positively or negatively framed ‘climate label.’

Participants were randomized to view menus with 1 of 3 label conditions: a quick response code label on all items (control group); green low–climate impact label on chicken, fish, or vegetarian items (positive framing); or red high–climate impact label on red meat items (negative framing).

Researchers found almost 25% more participants exposed to a climate label were motivated to purchase products with a lower carbon profile, as opposed to the QR code control group.

Noticeably, the group presented with menu options with high-impact climate labels were inclined to buy more sustainable options. Women were also more likely to respond to high-impact labels than men.

“We found that climate impact menu labels were effective, compared with a QR code label, at encouraging US adults to choose a more environmentally sustainable (non–red meat) item from a fast-food restaurant menu,” explained the study’s authors.

“Labelling red meat items with negatively framed, red, high climate impact labels was more effective at increasing sustainable selections than labelling non-red meat items with positively framed, green low climate impact labels.”

Labels that suggested climate sustainability also appeared to influence the perception of a product’s nutritional value.

But researchers also found these labels may lead to a misleading “halo effect”. This means that out of the menu presented, the participants exposed to climate labels were more likely to select healthier items, but none of the choices met the definition of a healthy product under the US Nutritional Profile Index.

The researchers fear that though presented with a more sustainable choice, people might pick the least harmful one, still the experiment was hypothetical and a real-world experiment might result in different consumer choices.

 “Findings from this study suggest that sustainability labels, particularly labels warning of high climate impact on red meat items in fast food restaurants, may be an effective means of promoting more environmentally sustainable choices,” they said.

“This health halo effect may be important because many sustainable items are not particularly healthy. The health halo effect may encourage their overconsumption.”

On a typical day, more than one-third of US individuals consume fast food, which is associated with numerous adverse health outcomes. The World Obesity Federation earlier estimated that one billion people will be living with obesity by 2030.

The study is available here.

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