Could ordering a McChicken, instead of a Big Mac, help fight climate change?
To avoid the disastrous effects of global warming, many people have been willing to trade in their gas-guzzling cars, install solar panels on their roofs, or reduce their energy use.
But on any given day, more than a third of Americans find themselves eating fast food, which serves a significant portion of red meat for the climate. What customers decide to order may be a matter of personal preference, but experts say it has huge implications for the amount of planet-warming gases emitted by farms.
In a study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers surveyed more than 5,000 adults nationwide to assess whether placing climate impact labels on fast-food menus could persuade customers to make better choices. environmentally friendly.
They found that customers were 23% less likely to order red meat at a fast food restaurant if the menu had labels warning that those meals had a negative effect on the climate. Customers were almost 10% more likely to order a more climate-friendly option, such as chicken or fish, if those items had labels promoting them as climate-friendly.
“If, at the population level, we make some minor changes in the way we make food choices, replacing some beef items with less impactful options, there can be a really measurable effect on climate change,” said Julia Wolfson, lead . study author and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “So the question is, how can we push those options in that direction?”
The results suggest that climate-related food labeling can be an effective tool to reduce the demand for meat products and, in turn, the carbon footprint of the industry. Animal food production is responsible for approximately 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, much of which is associated with livestock belching methane, a greenhouse gas greenhouse 25 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
The labeling strategy may also help transform American burger culture, a saturated-fat ethos that Southern California has helped cultivate for more than a century.
From roughly the time a teenage cook in Pasadena is said to have invented the first cheeseburger in 1924, beef has become a staple on menus across the country. Hamburgers became especially popular at fast-casual fast food chains, which used drive-thru lanes and drive-thru service to make ordering a meal even more convenient. Southern California helped feed this national hamburger hunger by hosting the original McDonald’s, in San Bernardino; the first Jack in the Box, in San Diego; and the first In-N-Out, in Baldwin Park.
Today, meat consumption in the US remains disproportionately high, and hamburgers still feature prominently on most fast food menus. But these restaurants are increasingly offering meat-free alternatives, such as fries made with vegetables and soy protein.
In the survey, researchers asked potential customers to choose from a 13-item menu at a popular fast-food chain. They divided the survey participants into three separate groups: one that had a menu where the beef burgers had red labels, reading “High Climate Impact”; another who saw a menu in which chicken, fish and vegetarian meals had the green label “Low climate impact”; and a third without climate information.
Among the group that reviewed the menu with the red warning label, 61% of respondents opted for a non-beef meal. About 54% of those who received the menu with the green and climate positive label chose a product other than beef.
“There is some evidence that warning-style labels, which have been implemented in other settings for high sodium or high sugar, are more effective than positive spin labels,” he said. Wolfson. “And this could be following that trend.”
The survey examined a broad selection of adults by sex, race, age, political ideology, income and region. Gender, however, appeared to be the only significant difference in labeling effectiveness, with women heeding the red climate label more than men.
“There is further evidence that calorie menu labels tend to be more effective and more observed by women compared to men,” Wolfson said. “So it could be that the high-impact message was more salient to women compared to men. It could be that they were more flexible in what they wanted to ask for, while men saw the message as: “Ok, but that’s what I want to ask. It’s worth exploring further.”
Until now, these labels are an uncommon sight on fast food menus. The industry is unlikely to voluntarily label beef items with negative labels unless required by regulation. However, some food chains have proactively labeled foods associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Panera Bread, for example, partnered with the Washington, DC-based nonprofit World Research Institute to measure the carbon footprint of its meals in an effort to better inform customers about the climate impacts of its dishes. Items with a lower carbon footprint are labeled as “Fresh Foods” with a green smiley emoji with a tongue sticking out.
History has shown that American diets have changed over time as awareness of the health consequences has grown. For example, people are drinking less sugary drinks since they have been linked to obesity and other health problems.
Now, at a time when people are increasingly interested in taking action to reduce planet-warming gases, perhaps this information could enable customers to make more climate-conscious decisions.
“There are definitely people who won’t change,” Wolfson said. “But there are also people who adapt. To create knowledge and awareness about how our food choices affect climate change, i.e. direct action that we as individuals can take to mitigate climate change. It’s a salient message for some people and information worth expanding on.”