Researchers found that placing climate labels on fast food items shaped consumers’ choices for the better, persuading them against carbon-heavy items. 

Placing climate labels that explain the environmental footprint of a specific food item can positively shape consumers’ eating habits, a new study found.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Network Open, was conducted through an online survey. Researchers at John Hopkins School of Public Health and Harvard University surveyed more than 5,000 adults in the US. They were asked to imagine being in a fast-food chain and were offered one of three menu options: a positively frames menu, where green labels indicated the meal’s low climate impact; a negatively framed menu with red labels signalling the high carbon footprint of beef items, and a control menu with QR labels next to all items.

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The green label on the low-climate impact menu, with items including chicken, fish, or vegetarian options, stated: “This item is environmentally sustainable. It has low greenhouse gas emissions and a low contribution to climate change.” The menu with food items labeled as high-climate impact said: “This item is not environmentally sustainable. It has high greenhouse gas emissions and a high contribution to climate change.”

Researchers found that 23% more participants in the high-climate impact label condition opted for a non-red meat – and thus more sustainable – alternative, while 10% more participants in the low-climate impact label condition ordered a sustainable item compared with the control group.

That meat has a huge environmental footprint is no news. In the food production industry, meat accounts for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gas emissions generated. Beef production remains the biggest source of greenhouse gases, with nearly 199 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram of meat. Americans in the US, the world’s top meat eaters, currently consume around 124 kilograms of meat per person and year, Europeans around 80 kilograms – both a multiple of dietary recommendations.

A study published earlier this year suggested that rich countries must drastically reduce their meat consumption in order to keep global climate goals within reach and ensure future food security.

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