New Study Finds Climate-Conscious Menu Labels Impact Food Choices

Whether you follow a vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or even King Charles' climatarian diet, making climate-conscious food choices isn't always as straightforward as you may think — consider the difference in the sustainability of each plant-based milk, for example. 

As you may know, many different aspects go into determining the environmental impact of any one food product, not simply what it's made of. According to Eaternity, climate scores are often measured to include each stage of the product's life cycle, from production and handling to transportation, storage, and disposal.

To make things even more complicated, each of these points varies from brand to brand — even if they're making the same product. While many food brands have made transparency, particularly in regard to the life cycle of their products and their environmental impacts, a priority (per The Food Institute), a lot of the research is still left in the hands of the consumer. 

This only makes making climate-conscious choices much more confusing, leading some people to make decisions they may not have made should they have had a little more information. However, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that many more people could make sustainable food choices by including simplified climate labels on food menus (via JAMA Network).

Traffic-light food labels encourages people to eat sustainably

According to CNN, restaurants have been responding to consumers' interest in climate-conscious foods by adding more vegan and vegetarian-friendly items to their menus — and some, as in the example of Panera's cool food meal labels, have gone as far as labeling the eco-friendly items on their menus for their customers. Many more would like to follow in their footsteps. 

Still, without substantial research on the best way to do so, restaurant owners aren't sure how to design their menus in a way that encourages customers to eat more sustainably. But that's where the new study comes in.

Through the conduction of randomized clinical trials, the study's researchers provided thousands of U.S. adults with one of three versions of fast food menus: One that had QR codes next to each item, another that had green labels identifying low-climate food items, and lastly, one with red labels identifying the high-climate food items. 

In the end, the researchers found that the traffic light labels were not only effective in helping people identify climate-conscious foods but actually encouraged people to order chicken, fish, and vegetarian items over beef items on the menu. Of all the menu designs, the study proved that the red high-climate impact labels were the most effective — making customers 23% more likely to order sustainable food items, per JAMA Network.