Could Climate Impact Labels Change the Way We Eat?

Warnings on fast-food menus might make Americans think twice about choosing beef, a new study finds

a man looks at an electronic restaurant menu behind a counter
Americans might choose more sustainable meals when beef items on menus are labeled "high climate impact." slobo via Getty Images

Labels describing the climate impact of dishes on fast-food menus could encourage Americans to eat more sustainably, a new study finds.

When it comes to food production, beef has one of the largest climate footprints. It’s among the most resource-intensive foods to produce, and cattle account for about two-thirds of livestock’s global greenhouse gas emissions. Replacing a burger with poultry or a vegetarian option can be a more Earth-friendly choice.

In the study, published in JAMA Network Open last week, scientists asked more than 5,000 participants to select a hypothetical meal from a sample fast-food menu. To gauge whether people would dine differently if they could see the environmental cost of their choice, the researchers used three variations of the menu—one with no labels, one with “high climate impact” labels next to red meat items and one with “low climate impact” labels next to fish, chicken and meatless dishes.

The team found that discouraging less sustainable options was the best way to get diners to think twice about their orders: Participants reading the menus with “high climate impact” labels chose non-beef options 23 percent more frequently than the study’s control group.

They also made greener choices when the menu featured “low climate impact” labels, though only 10 percent more frequently than the control group.

This squares with previous research indicating that “negative-framed messages,” such as the study’s high-impact label or packaging stating that a food is high in sugar, “may be more influential than positive ones,” Lindsey Smith Taillie, a nutrition epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was not involved in the study, tells Bloomberg’s Zahra Hirji.

“These results suggest that menu labeling, particularly labels warning that an item has high climate impact, can be an effective strategy for encouraging more sustainable food choices in a fast-food setting,” says study lead author Julia Wolfson, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University, in a statement.

However, you don’t need to skip straight to eating climate-friendly insects or seaweed for dinner in place of your burger. Even small diet adjustments “can have really measurable impacts on reducing food systems-related climate change and climate change overall,” Wolfson tells CNN’s Laura Paddison.

Choosing to eat less red meat could be better not only for the planet, but for human health. Consuming a high amount of red meat has been linked to health issues, such as colorectal cancer. Still, experts warn that dishes with lower climate emissions can seem healthier than they really are—they have “an undeserved health halo,” Wolfson says in the statement. The researchers observed this false impression when they asked participants to rate how healthy they thought their chosen dinner was: Regardless of the labels on their menu, those who selected more sustainable meals believed their choice was healthier than beef. In reality, none of the fast-food meals were very healthy, per the statement.

“We have to look for labeling strategies that create ‘win-wins’ for promoting both more sustainable and healthy choices,” Wolfson says in the statement.

While the study covered only a hypothetical dining experience, some restaurants have already begun writing different dishes’ carbon footprints on the menu. The United Kingdom-based chain Wahaca now lists “carbon labels” to give customers more information about their choices, as BBC Future’s Isabelle Gerretsen reported in November. Still, this practice remains relatively rare.

The findings show that climate labels on foods have promise, Kristie Ebi, an environmental health expert at the University of Washington who was not involved in the study, tells Bloomberg. “With more information, the American public could make better choices in terms of healthiness and in terms of sustainability,” she tells the publication.