Labels placed on fast food items highlighting their high climate impact may sway consumers to make more sustainable food choices, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) (Wolfson et al., 2022).
“Food accounts for around one-third of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions, with animal-based foods such as red meat and dairy products making up a large proportion of these emissions.”
“In the current study published in JAMA, researchers carried out a randomized clinical trial with more than 5,000 participants to determine whether calling attention to red meat’s climate impact could change consumer menu selections.
Individuals were shown a sample online fast-food menu and asked to select an item for dinner.
A control group received a menu with a quick response code label on all items and no climate labels. Another group received a menu with green low-climate impact labels, positively framing options like fish, chicken, or vegetarian options. The third group received a menu with red high-climate labels on items containing red meat, negatively framing the options.
Results showed 23 percent more participants in the high climate label group ordered a sustainable, non-red meat option, and 10 percent more in the low-climate group ordered a sustainable option, compared with controls.”
“In the United States, meat consumption, red meat consumption in particular, consistently exceeds recommended levels based on national dietary guidelines,” researchers wrote in the study.
“Shifting current dietary patterns toward more sustainable diets with lower amounts of red meat consumed could reduce diet-related [greenhouse gas emissions] by up to 55 [percent].”
Excess red meat consumption can also be harmful to human health and has been linked with increased risks of diabetes and certain cancers. Fast food restaurants are a key source of red meat in many Americans’ diets, authors noted, adding more than one-third of U.S. individuals consume fast food on a given day.
“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 lead study author Julia Wolfson said in a statement. Wolfson is an associate professor in the department of international health at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Participants were also asked to rate how healthy they perceived their order to be. No food items included in the study were considered healthy based on Nutrition Profile Index scores.
Regardless of the climate label, those who selected a non-beef option perceived their choice to be healthier than those who selected a red meat item, researchers found.” Hence, “These results suggest climate labels may make a food item seem more healthy than it is.”
Regarding fast food meals, there are other aspects of environmental sustainability and health than simply a food’s climate impact, such as overuse of antibiotics in industrial animal agriculture and concerns related to packaging.
For more on these concerns, see the article from Eat this, Not That! (May 13, 2022): 8 Fast-Food Chains with Questionable Ingredient Quality
In a separate study conducted by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in 2022, “compared to study participants who viewed a menu without a message, those who viewed the same menu with a sustainability message were more likely to select lower-carbon vegetarian meals. In fact, two of the messages (“small changes, big impact” and “joining a movement”) roughly doubled the percentage of vegetarian dishes that participants ordered. Moreover, they were more likely to order a vegetarian dish the next time they ate out.” For more information, see WRI’s Working Paper titled, “Environmental Messages Promote Plant-based Food Choices: An Online Restaurant Menu Study” (WRI, 2022):
Cool Food Meals and The Cool Food Pledge
The Cool Food Initiative, developed by the World Resources Institute (WRI) (coolfood.org), is committed to helping businesses and organizations cut the climate impact of the food they serve. The Cool Food Pledge helps an organization commit to and achieve a science-based target to reduce the climate impact of foods served. Cool Food Meals can help diners look for the Cool Food Meals badge when they shop or dine out. See below for the Cool Foods Meal badge (logo).
“The Cool Food Meals badge first launched on Panera Bread menus in the United States in October 2020. Fifty-five percent of Panera entrees are certified as Cool Food Meals.” See the diagram below of Panera’s Strawberry Poppyseed Salad with Chicken, which has been designated a Cool Food Meal.
“It’s been exciting to see just how well consumers have received the Cool Food Meals-labeled dishes on Panera’s app and in stores,” said Sara Burnett, Vice President, Food Beliefs, Sustainability and PR at Panera Bread. “Panera warmly embraces the new Cool Food Meal partners as we can now reach customers across new countries and access points, from restaurants to universities. With each new partner and Cool Food Meals choice, we unite to reduce the footprint of food in our fight against the climate crisis.”
“Cool Food” is a ground-breaking initiative from World Resources Institute (WRI) that helps major food providers use cutting-edge environmental and behavioral science to scale healthy, climate-friendly meals that benefit people and the planet. Its members span food service companies, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, cities, and universities predominantly across Europe and North America, but also with locations in Latin America, Asia, and Australia.
“Through its Cool Food initiative, WRI also leads the Cool Food Pledge, which helps restaurants, hospitals, hotels, universities, and cities tap the latest behavioral science to cut emissions from the food they serve. Strategies range from changing menu layouts and using appetizing language to help consumers more often choose low-carbon options, to offering more plant-focused meals.”
“When food providers make even small changes to what they buy and serve, they can see sizeable reductions in their food-related GHG emissions,” said Edwina Hughes, Head of Cool Food at WRI. “We’ve now reached a point with our early adopters that we can see the scale of emissions reduction that’s possible when food providers commit to serving low carbon foods. The future of climate action really is happening on diners’ plates.”
“Since its launch in 2019, Cool Food’s total membership has grown to include 63 organizations. In the past year alone, the size of the Cool Food movement more than doubled, showing the emphasis that more companies and food providers are placing on food as a key strategy to address the climate crisis.”
The Cool Food movement’s newest members include the city of Washington, DC and Bon Appétit Management Company.
“The District is taking the next step in doing our part by tackling the carbon footprint of what we buy, starting with the meals we serve to our students and seniors,” said DC Department of Energy & Environment Director Tommy Wells. “Our vision for a Sustainable DC is a healthy, green, livable city for all residents. We are proud to join the Cool Food movement that prioritizes purchasing high-quality, nutritious meals that are also helping to grow our local green economy and fight climate change.”
“At Bon Appétit Management Company, we depend on World Resources Institute’s data resources to help us track emissions impacts and drive change in our cafés nationwide,” says Chief Strategy and Brand Officer Maisie Ganzler.
“We are pleased to be part of the Cool Food movement and extend our longstanding commitment to mitigating the food system’s role in climate change.” “With its rapidly increasing membership, the Cool Food movement now encompasses food providers serving approximately 3.5 billion meals every year. If the full group of Cool Food Pledge members hit the 25% absolute GHG reduction target by 2030, it would reduce annual emissions by nearly 6.4 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year – an amount that equates to removing more than 1.3 million vehicles from the road, or all of the registered vehicles in Chicago. “
In Colombia (where I live), carbon labels have entered the marketplace. For example, see the Carbono Nuetro Certificado [Certified Carbon Neutral] label below (bottom left corner) for Bebida de Cacaco y Almendra, sin Azucar [Dark Chocolate Almond Milk, Sugar Free], certified by Icontec – The Colombian Institute of Technical Standards and Certification (https://www.icontec.org).
Melillo G. Climate impact labels could help promote sustainable food choices: study. The Hill. January 4, 2023. Available at: https://thehill.com/changing-america/sustainability/climate-change/3798826-climate-impact-labels-could-help-promote-sustainable-food-choices-study/
Wolfson JA, Musicus AA, Leung CW, Gearhardt AN, Falbe J. Effect of climate change impact menu labels on fast food ordering choices among US adults: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(12):e2248320. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.48320 Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2799947
World Resources Institute. Environmental Messages Promote Plant-based Food Choices: An Online Restaurant Menu Study. Washington DC: WRI Working Paper, February 1, 2022. Available at: https://www.wri.org/research/environmental-messages-promote-plant-based-food-choices-online-restaurant-menu-study
Kirouac M. 8 Fast-food chains with questionable ingredient quality. Eat This, Not That! May 13, 2022. Available at: https://www.eatthis.com/news-fast-food-chains-questionable-quality-of-ingredients/
Blondin S. Changes to menu messaging can increase sales of climate-friendly food. World Resources Institute. February 1, 2022. Available at: https://www.wri.org/update/menu-messaging-increase-sales-climate-friendly-food
World Resources Institute (WRI). Identifying Cool Food Meals. Washington DC: WRI. June 27, 2022. Available at:https://www.wri.org/research/identifying-cool-food-meals
World Resources Institute (WRI). The Low-Carbon “Cool Food” Movement Brings Wins in Fight Against Climate Change. September 21, 2022. Available at:
World Resources Institute (WRI). “Cool Food Meals” Badge Coming to Aramark, MAX Burgers and Nestlé Professional Menus, Helping Consumers Choose Climate-Friendly Foods. Washington DC: WRI. October 13, 2021. Available at: https://www.wri.org/news/release-cool-food-meals-badge-coming-aramark-max-burgers-and-nestle-professional-menus-helping