Climate labelling might change fast food eating habits

Labels that indicate the impact of food products on the climate might sway the choices of consumers, according to a clinical trial published in JAMA Network Open.

The study placed more than 5000 US adults into a survey where they pictured themselves ordering from a fast-food menu consisting of burgers, salads and other products typical of takeaway restaurants.

Alongside these items were one of three labels: either a QR code, or a positively or negatively framed ‘climate label.’

Climate labels either suggested the product resulted in less or more greenhouse gas emissions connected to lower or higher climate impact.

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.

Those presented menu options with high-impact climate labels were also likely 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.

In Australia, major fast-food retailers need to include prominent nutrition information labelling on their menus across most states and territories. New South Wales was the first to introduce such a scheme, with a review finding two in five consumers noticed – and were influenced by – kilojoule labelling.

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The climate labelling assessed in the American study also found participants exposed to a climate label were more likely to order items with higher nutritional value.

But researchers also found these labels may lead to a misleading “halo effect”.

While participants exposed to climate labels were more likely to select healthier items, none met the definition of a healthy product under the US Nutritional Profile Index.

And while the results suggest climate impact labels might lead to more environmentally sustainable choices, the researchers noted the hypothetical nature of the survey is isolated from the effect   real-world exposure has on consumer decisions.

“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.”

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