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Climate impact labels could affect fast food choices, study finds

Adding climate labels to a menu reduced participants’ selection of red meat-containing items.
Burger and fries
Climate labels may have the unwanted side effect of making a choice appear healthier than it is. / Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Including climate labels on fast food menu items could have a notable impact on a consumer’s decision to eat sustainably, according to a recent study.

The study, led by a researcher at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that climate impact labels on a sample fast food menu influenced participants’ food choices.

More than 5,000 online participants were shown a sample fast food menu and then asked to choose one item.

One group of participants received a menu where items without red meat were labeled as having “low climate impact,” while another group received a menu with red meat-containing items designated as “high climate impact.” The control group received a menu with no climate labels.

Both labels reduced participants’ selection of red meat-containing items. Menus with a “high climate impact” label on burgers increased non-beef choices by 23% compared to the control group, while menus that included “low climate impact” labels increased non-beef choices by about 10%.

Additionally, participants who selected a more sustainable item perceived their choice to be healthier than those who chose a beef item.

The results suggest that the “low climate impact” label was less effective at encouraging sustainable choices, with the “high climate impact” label resonating more with the participants. Additionally, the researchers note that climate labels may have the unwanted side effect of making a choice appear healthier than it is, according to a statement.

Climate impact labeling on menus is nothing new. Panera Bread and Just Salad began labeling the carbon footprints of at least some of their items in 2020. But it’s a practice most fast food chains have yet to pick up.

"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," said study lead author Julia Wolfson, associate professor in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School, in the statement. 

The study was conducted from March 30 to April 13 of last year.

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