New Research Dishes On Ways Restaurants Can Increase Orders of Lower Emission Foods

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A new meta-analysis explores how restaurants can get patrons to order lower-emission food.

In a climate increasingly fraught with urgency, the microscope is on consumer behaviors, particularly food choices, which generate about 34 percent of worldwide greenhouse emissions, according to new research.

The findings

A new meta-analysis, published in the journal Appetite, looked at 83 interventions aimed at enticing consumers to choose low emissions meals in various food-service settings including work, school, and hospital cafeterias along with a range of restaurants. 

Photo by Abhishek Sanwa Limbu on Unsplash

The researchers examined various interventions aimed at pivoting consumption habits toward the more sustainable options. Interventions developed to alter consumer beliefs show minimal effect on the actual behavior of food selection — even though consumers understand that there’s every reason to opt for the more sustainable choices.

For instance, while a T-Bone steak served with imported vegetables generates approximately 14.65 kg of CO2 (the equivalent of driving a car for 79 km), a veggie bowl containing beans, grains, and local vegetables produces only around 610 g of emissions (equivalent to driving 3 km) — 96 percent fewer emissions.

But knowing that was not enough to move the needle for most consumers.

The factors for success

The researchers found that two primary factors are behind the emissions from restaurants and cafeterias. First, they often source ingredients from non-local suppliers, resulting in long-distance transportation of food; transportation is a leading cause of carbon emissions.

Second, menus typically consist of about 80 percent meat-based dishes; meat and other animal products, are responsible for about 15 percent of global emissions.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

The meta-analysis sheds light on effective, practical strategies that food providers, marketers, and policymakers could adopt, such as amplifying the accessibility of low-emission choices and increasing the enjoyment of low-emissions foods. The findings show these methods were more effective than trying to change consumer beliefs about why they should make the switch.

Other measures thought to increase widespread adoption of lower emissions meals aren’t necessarily effective, the researchers noted, such as emissions labeling on menus, social norms, and incentives. The key drivers appear to be better-tasting food that’s more widely available.

Other research published earlier this year found 60 percent of restaurateurs see low-emissions plant-based food as a long-term trend.


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