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Study reveals unexpected labels have a massive impact on customers' fast food orders: 'Can be an effective strategy'

Among participants who saw the red warning-style label, 61% opted for a menu item that was free of beef.

Climate fast food labels

Photo Credit: iStock

Putting climate labels on food may help consumers make more sustainable choices, a new study found.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health divided 5,000 study participants into three groups and showed them all a version of the same sample menu, asking them to choose a single item for dinner. 

The first group of participants was shown the sample menu with "high climate impact" dishes, like those containing red meat, labeled in red. The second group was shown the same sample menu but with "low climate impact" food items, like plant-forward dishes, distinguished with a green label. 

The third group, which served as a control, was shown the same menu options with no climate labels at all.

Among participants who saw the red warning-style label, 61% opted for a menu item that was free of beef, which is the leading driver of pollution in the animal agriculture industry. For those who saw the green climate-positive label, 54% also chose a nonbeef item. 

"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.

The study participants were also asked to rate how healthful they thought the items were that they selected. 

According to the findings, regardless of the label, if a consumer selected an item they believed to be more sustainable, they also perceived the item as healthier.

While climate-friendly menu options are often the healthier choice, a food item's sustainability does not directly correlate to its healthfulness.  

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

Justin Labeille, associate director of climate research at Giving Green, told The Food Institute that climate labels are probably most useful in cases when already climate-conscious consumers "need a reminder nudge" or "lack awareness in the first place." 

Labeille says for nonclimate-conscious consumers, making a climate-conscious decision based on labels is "more likely to be considered a sacrifice — and one they may be unlikely to make."

But Wolfson remains hopeful about the study's results

"There's some evidence that warning-style labels, which have been implemented in other settings for high sodium content or high sugar content, are more effective than positive-spin labels," she said. "And this might just be following that trend."

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