The Earth

Saving the Planet with Fast Food Menu Labels

If there’s no greater burden than high expectations, then food labels have a big load to carry. We keep expecting them to solve problems of unhealthy diets, obesity, and now perhaps climate change, too. A new study in JAMA Open Networks suggests fast food food menu labels might be an effective tool to help with saving the planet. Researchers from Johns Hopkins and Harvard examined effect of climate impact labels on fast food choices and concluded:

“These findings suggest that climate impact menu labels may be an effective strategy to promote more sustainable restaurant food choices and that labels highlighting high–climate impact items may be most effective.”

Simulated Choices

This was an online experiment with simulated choices from fast food menus. The researchers surveyed 5,049 adults representative of U.S. population demographics. Everyone viewed a menu and picked an item they would like to order for dinner. The study randomized people to three possible menus. In the control group, every option for dinner simply had a quick response code. For the positive frame group, chicken, fish, and vegetarian items had a green low-climate impact label. The third group was the negative frame, where red meat items had a red high-climate impact label.

The negative frame had the biggest effect on menu choices. Those red high-climate impact labels led 24 more people to choose a sustainable option. In the positive frame, people were ten percent more likely to make a sustainable choice.

But let’s remember. These are simulated choices. Nobody in this study actually paid for these menu items or consumed them. So what we have here is a hypothetical effect on a hypothetical choice. On top of that, this measures a single outcome from a single exposure to the menu label. Repeated exposures and behavior in the real world can yield very different results.

Multiple Agendas and Health Halos

The researchers also note that the low-climate impact labels might confer an unwarranted health halo:

“Individuals in the low–climate impact condition, particularly those who selected sustainable items, perceived that their selection was healthier than those in the control condition. This health halo effect may be important because many sustainable items are not particularly healthy (no menu items in this study met the threshold to be considered healthy based on NPI scores), and the health halo effect may encourage their overconsumption.”

So exactly what is the labor that we want menu labels to do? Promote sustainable choices? Push healthier menu items? Or just help people rationalize overconsumption so that restaurants can sell more food?

We suspect that the third option in that list, for business reasons, may carry the day.

Click here for this study, here and here for more reporting on it. For additional perspective on the pitfalls of menu labeling, click here.

The Earth, painting by Maarten de Vos / WikiArt

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December 28, 2022