Climate labels on fast-food menus can help steer people away from ordering beef – the food with the worst impact on the climate – and towards meals that are better for the planet, according to new research. Food systems contribute roughly a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and much of it comes from raising cows and other livestock. As people look for climate solutions to rapidly cut down their greenhouse gas emissions, “one of the biggest changes we can make is reducing the red meat we consume”, says Julia Wolfson, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a former fine-dining chef, and one of the researchers behind the new study. In search of ways to shift consumer behaviour, Wolfson and colleagues at Johns Hopkins, Harvard University and the University of Michigan created an experiment to test two types of climate labels on fast-food menus. The researchers specifically targeted fast food because it’s a major source of beef consumption in the US. More than one-third of Americans consume fast food on a given day. Using a large fast-food chain’s menu as a model, the researchers came up with three menu versions: one without climate labels, a second with red labels under every beef option noting “high climate impact”, and a third with green labels noting “low climate impact” under chicken, fish and vegetarian meals. Roughly 5,000 participants were randomly assigned to view one of the three menus and then prompted to select an item they would hypothetically like to order for dinner. A plant-based diet is good for your wallet, not just your health The group that avoided beef looked at menus with the high-impact label, with 61 per cent of them ordering a more sustainable option, according to the study in the medical journal Jama Open Network. More than half of people who saw the low-impact labels, 54.4 per cent, made a more sustainable choice, and just less than half of those who saw no labels at all decided to avoid beef. “The main takeaway is that both labels effectively increased the proportion of participants who ordered a sustainable item, but the most effective was the high climate impact label on the red meat item,” Wolfson says. That finding “is consistent with previous research showing that negative-framed messages may be more influential than positive ones”, says Lindsey Smith Taillie, a nutrition epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the US, who was not involved in the study. She cited research showing that labels on the front of food packages warning “high in sugar” can lead to reduced consumption. Kristie Ebi, a climate and health professor at the University of Washington in the US, who was also not involved in the study, sees the result as a sign “that with more information, the American public could make better choices in terms of healthiness and in terms of sustainability”. More research is needed to determine the most effective climate labelling, and Ebi suggested looking to the history of warning labels on cigarettes, which have since “been improved in terms of their effectiveness”. While the research suggests climate labels could help move the needle on eating more sustainably in a fast-food setting, it’s not definitive proof. “This was an online study with a hypothetical food choice,” Wolfson says. “It will be really important to see in the future if these results and the magnitude of these impacts would be replicated in real-world settings where people are making real choices, they are spending their real money and they are then having to really eat the foods they select.” The researchers also found that people who selected the non-beef or more sustainable option, regardless of the climate labels they saw, were more likely to view that choice as healthier – even if that wasn’t necessarily the case. Going vegan made easy: five tips from someone who made the switch “It’s really important how we think about striking that balance when trying to nudge consumer behaviour towards both more sustainable selections as well as healthier options,” Wolfson says. Ebi pointed out that none of the menu items in the labelling study were actually healthy, regardless of their climate impact. “This suggests that fast-food restaurants need further encouragement to provide healthier food choices.” Veganuary: enjoy the health benefits of a whole food plant-based diet Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .