First-of-its-kind research has discovered that adding eco-friendly ratings to menu items can lead to diners making environmentally friendly choices.

The study, conducted by the University of Bristol, discovered that offering customers a traffic light rating for the sustainability of each item on the menu greatly boosted the likelihood that they would select more eco-friendly options.

“Adding a traffic light eco-label to menus increased the selection of more sustainable food items,” said lead author Katie De-Lloyd, research associate in psychological science. “Furthermore, and somewhat surprisingly, participants were positive about the eco-label, with a huge 90 percent of participants supporting the idea.

“Pending replication in real-world settings, our results suggest future policy could include mandatory eco-labeling, just like the health traffic light system, on food products as a way to promote more sustainable diets.”

In the study, participants were asked whether they would like a burrito filled with beef, chicken, or a vegetarian option. Each burrito had a sustainability rating in the form of a traffic light, and the vegetarian option had a green label highlighting its reduced carbon footprint and environmental effects.

When eco-labels were taken into account, the trial indicated that 5% more of the 1,399 adult participants chose the vegetarian choice, while 17% more chose the second-most sustainable option of chicken or vegetarian.

“The eco-label was particularly effective among those people who reported already being motivated to act sustainably,” De-Lloyd suggested. “This suggests these kinds of labels help people make dietary decisions which are in line with their personal values.”

The study made use of three fictitious meal delivery app menus, each of which had the three burrito selections along with various supporting details. Every menu included a picture of the item, its nutritional information, a Fairtrade emblem, a spice indicator, and a price that was the same for all selections.

However, one mock-up included a ‘social nudge’ in the form of a gold star with the words ‘Most Popular’ next to the vegetarian burrito. Another mock-up included an eco-label alongside each option, with the beef burrito receiving a red ‘5,’ the chicken option receiving a yellow ‘3,’ and the vegetarian option receiving a green ‘1’ to emphasise its superior sustainability credentials.

Participants were shown one of three mock-up menus at random and asked to select a burrito option as if they were normally ordering food.

According to the findings, which were published in the journal Behavioural Public Policy, one-third of the participants who were given the ‘control’ menu – without a social nudge or an eco-label – chose the beef burrito. However, this fell to 29% for those who had the social nudge menu and 16% for those who had the eco-labeled menu.

Findings showed that when given the control menu, only 9% of customers would choose a vegetarian burrito; however, these numbers rose to 13% and 14% with the social nudge and eco-label, respectively.

The study is the most recent in a line of investigations into how dietary decisions can significantly affect carbon emissions and contribute to the transition to a net-zero energy system. “In 2020 the UK’s Committee on Climate Change advocated that beef consumption must be considerably reduced if the UK is to reach its net zero greenhouse gas emission target by 2050,” said report co-author Dr Olivia Maynard from the University of Bristol. “Although further research on eco-labelling is essential, future policy may wish to consider a mandatory eco-label to help meet global climate change targets.”


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