Sustainability Messaging on Menus Promote Plant-Based Food Choices, Multiple Studies Agree

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Multiple studies from around the world agree: sustainability messaging on menus is successful in getting more diners to order plant-based meals.

Scientists have warned that global meat and dairy intake must fall if we are to combat the climate crisis, but facilitating this widespread shift in dietary patterns remains a huge hurdle. New research from various studies conducted around the world suggests that conveying the sustainability aspect of food choices is key to persuading diners to opt for low-carbon plant-based meals.

‘High impact’ climate labels reduce beef orders

The newest study emerging from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health finds the addition of climate impact labels on fast food menus had a “strong effect” on diners’ choices. Published online in JAMA Network Open on December 27, researchers concluded that both high and low climate impact labels led to a substantial decline in carbon-intensive red meat selections among the more than 5,000 participants involved in the US-based study. 

High impact carbon labels were effective in reducing the number of beef orders. (Image: Unsplash)

Participants were split into three groups, with each receiving different sample burger menus that had either “high impact” on beef items, “low impact” on vegetarian, fish and chicken items, or no climate labels, respectively. The “high impact” group saw the most drastic reduction in beef choices (23%) compared to the control group, while “low impact” labels still had a modest effect (10%). 

Animal agriculture is responsible for around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with beef being the most taxing on the climate. Due to its high land use, feed-intensive nature and methane released into the atmosphere, raising cattle alone accounts for one quarter of the world’s total food emissions. 

“Menu labelling, 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,” explains lead author and Associate Professor Julia Wolfson, PhD. 

These findings mirror that of a separate UK-based study published just months prior in the journal Behavioural Public Policy in October. Conducted by researchers at Bristol University, the results showed that “traffic light” ratings indicating the climate-friendliness of menu items “significantly increased” the selection of sustainable plant-based dishes. 

Not just effective: many diners prefer eco-label menus

More than 1,300 adults were recruited and were given different sample food delivery app menus containing three burrito dishes, each featuring information about its environmental impact, calories, and spiciness level. All three burrito options, beef, chicken and vegetarian, were the same price.

Vegan burrito. (Image: Unsplash)

While the control group who were given a regular menu saw around one-third opting for the carbon-intensive beef burrito, those who were given a menu that featured eco-labels saw beef orders drop to 16%. Eco-label menus led to 14% choosing the vegetarian option, while the control group saw just 9% make the same decision to go veggie. 

Climate labels weren’t just effective in promoting plant-based choices. Interestingly, the study also concluded that consumers seem to be open-minded about having menus featuring environmental information. 

“Somewhat surprisingly, participants were positive about the eco-label, with a huge 90% of participants supporting the idea,” said lead author and Research Associate Katie De-loyde. “Our results suggest future policy could include mandatory eco-labeling…on food products as a way to promote more sustainable diets.”

Consumer understanding of sustainable eating is key

Part of why climate labels have proven successful is likely down to the fact that many consumers simply lack the knowledge about what eating sustainably means. 

Another study, published in the journal Appetite on December 13, finds the majority of Britons—particularly the younger generation—are willing to make eco-friendly changes but are “prevented from doing so” due to uncertainty about specific swaps they should make. 

“We were surprised by our findings,” shares Bournemouth University Professor of Psychology Katherine Appleton, who led the research. “People seem to understand [living sustainably] can mean taking fewer flights, using the car less, recycling more, but it seems that not everyone is aware of the difference that changing their diet can make as well.” 

“We had originally intended [to look] at how we can encourage people to eat more foods such as beans and pulses, but we discovered that people still don’t know enough about why this is important, so to talk about increasing the consumption of specific foods is getting too far ahead for many,” she added. 

The team, which based their conclusions on a series of interviews with young people of varying cooking abilities and households, recommends that greater focus must be placed on raising public awareness about sustainable eating and the effect food choices have on the planet. 

Menus featuring climate impact information increased the number of vegetarian orders. (Image: Unsplash)

The willingness of consumers to make eco-friendly food swaps is evident not just in the UK, but in other areas of the world too. The latest 2022 EAT Forum report saw a majority of respondents to a GlobeScan poll perceive responsible food purchases as important to them. Nearly 30,000 adults were surveyed across 31 countries, among them Vietnam, Colombia, South Korea and Sweden. 45% indicated that environmentally-friendly food choices were “very important”, while 44% described it as “somewhat important”. 

This illustrates a change in attitudes compared to a few years ago, with one Hong Kong survey conducted in 2017 finding that diners in the city did not regard sustainability as their top priority when it came to their menu choices. 

Polling around 1,200 adults, the research team hailing from the city’s Polytechnic University, Texas A&M University and the University of Nevada in the US wrote: “Relative to nutritional information, respondents paid less attention to sustainability information” and “attach[ed] lesser value to the provision of information about environmentally friendly and low carbon ingredients that emanate from sustainable sources.”

Could we ‘nudge’ reluctant diners in the right direction? 

When it comes to persuading the hardiest carnivores or those reluctant to “go all-in” to eliminate their meat consumption, the idea of “nudging” might work. That’s another way eco-labels do come in handy, according to one Ghent University study

The colour green is an effective “nudge” to signal that a product or dish is sustainable. (Image: Unsplash)

The research, which was first published in the journal Proceedings of The Nutrition Society in 2019, concluded that gentle interventions like climate information on menus do motivate sustainable choices without alienating consumers by virtue of still providing the option of less planet-friendly items. Diners may feel “anticipated pride” when they choose plant-based dishes that have been labelled as eco-friendly, and even negative feelings of guilt if they are aware that a certain item is taxing on the climate. 

These “nudges” might even come in the form of non-language-based communication. A more recent piece of research also conducted in Belgium showed that colours could be used to alert consumers about whether a packaged food item or product is sustainable or not. This study was first made available online in the journal Appetite on December 21. 

All images courtesy of Unsplash.


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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