Menu labels nudge diners toward planet-friendly choices
As the new year approaches, people everywhere start thinking about how to make better choices for their diet and the planet. This includes a team of multi-institutional researchers, who tested a simple but effective way to influence the choices people made from a sample menu. By using a labeling system, the team found that it was possible to shift dining choices away from climate-straining red meat consumption and towards more eco-friendly plant-based options.
In conducting the study, the team – comprised of researchers from various educational institutions including Harvard and Johns Hopkins – created three mock menus based on those from fast food restaurants, with 14 items on each menu.
The first menu had a QR code next to every item. The second had green low-climate-impact labels next to chicken, fish, or vegetarian items along with a message at the top of the menu that read, "This item is environmentally sustainable. It has low greenhouse gas emissions and a low contribution to climate change." The third menu had red high-climate-impact labels next to items made from beef with an accompanying statement that said, "This item is not environmentally sustainable. It has high greenhouse gas emissions and a high contribution to climate change."
The researchers found that participants presented with the positive green messages (low climate impact) chose non-red-meat items 10% more often than those given the QR code menu, which served as the control group. Even more impressive, those presented with the red negative message (high climate impact) shifted their choices away from red meat 23% more than those in the control group.
If the labeling system (or one like it) could be adopted by fast-food restaurants, it could have a significant impact on the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs) that are driving global climate change. According to the research team, animal-based food production creates 14.5% of our GHGEs. Moving away from diets rich in red meat consumption could cut diet-related GHGEs by 55%. Furthermore, red meat has been implicated in cardiovascular disease and other health woes, so getting consumers to choose an alternative even part of the time, could impact a population's overall health.
The researchers acknowledge that negative messaging is likely not something that will be easily taken up by restaurants, however they suggest it could be effective in other venues "like workplaces, universities, hospitals, and other anchor institutions with carbon neutrality commitments."
They also caution about a "health-halo" effect that was observed in the study, in which participants who shifted away from red meat (especially those ordering from the low-climate-impact menu) also felt that their menu choices were healthier, which was not necessarily the case. In fact, the researchers point out that "no menu item in this study met the threshold to be considered healthy based on NPI (nutritional prognostic index) scores." NPI is a standardized tool that helps quantify the nutritional value of fast-food items.
Still, this research affirms previous findings that adding traffic-light eco-lables to menus caused consumers to choose more sustainable items. This means that dialing in the messaging to account for the "health halo" effect could provide an easy-to-incorporate, low-cost way to guide consumers toward choices that would benefit their own health and the health of the planet by consuming less red meat.
The research has been published in the journal, JAMA Network Open.
Source: JAMA Network Open
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