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Climate impact labeling has a strong influence on food selection

A new study led by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has found that including climate impact labels on a sample fast food menu significantly influenced people’s food choices in favor of more climate-friendly items, such as vegetarian, chicken, or fish dishes.   

The researchers enrolled over 5,000 online participants and presented them a sample menu resembling a fast food menu and asked them to choose a single item for a meal. While one group of participants received a menu with non-red meat items such as salads or chicken sandwiches labeled “low climate impact,” another one received a menu with red meat items, such as beef burgers, labeled “high climate impact.” Finally, a third control group received a menu with QR codes on all items but no climate labels.

The analysis revealed that both the high and low climate impact labels significantly reduced red meat selections compared to the control group. However, the high impact labels had a strong effect, increasing non-beef choices by 23 percent compared to just 10 percent in the case of menus including low climate impact labels.

“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, an associate professor in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School.

In addition to being asked to choose an item, participants were also asked to rate how healthy they believed the item they ordered was. Regardless of what type of label was on the menu, those who selected a more sustainable item perceived their choice to be healthier compared to those who selected a red meat item. 

Since red meat consumption has been linked to a variety of health issues, including colorectal cancer, type 2 diabetes, and stroke, the type of climate labeling analyzed in this study could prove highly effective in preventing illness. However, as the researchers warn, climate labels may also have the unwanted side effect of making a choice seem healthier than it actually is.

“An undeserved health halo conferred to unhealthy menu items could encourage their overconsumption. So we have to look for labeling strategies that create ‘win-wins’ for promoting both more sustainable and healthy choices,” Wolfson concluded.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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