Restaurant menu

Simple tweaks to the restaurant menu can encourage people to make more eco-friendly choices

Food production is a big contributor to climate change, contributing a third of our emissions – so finding innovative ways to tackle its greenhouse gas emissions is hugely important. In a new study, researchers have found that a small tweak to restaurant menus can make a significant difference.

Image credit: Pixnio.

When we think of climate change, we tend to think of things like cars, planes and electricity, but studies show that a large part of our greenhouse gas emissions come from what we eat. Much of this is due to land use change: we clear forests to make way for farms and ranches, we manage land to improve yields at the cost of land degradation, and we raise carbon-intensive livestock (cows alone account for around 10% of our global greenhouse gas emissions).

Researchers from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg in Germany set out to explore how ‘soft measures’ such as carbon labels and default switches in restaurants can help tackle the climate crisis in the context of global warming. catering – following previous studies that have shown how food choices affect personal carbon footprints.

“As part of environmentally sustainable practices, restaurants can help diners reduce their carbon footprint by choosing dishes. To this end, modifying menu design can lead to considerable positive effects,” the researchers wrote. “Over the past decade, there have been several attempts to reduce the footprint of food choices in restaurants.”

Restaurants and climate change

For their study, the researchers created nine mock menus to test two design approaches: carbon labels indicating the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with each dish and, for dishes whose components can be changed, by setting the default component to a low- or high-emitting option.

Sample menus. Image credits: Betz et al (2022).

In six menus, the main dishes were presented with different default options: the side dish was associated with either the highest greenhouse gas emissions or the lowest greenhouse gas emissions. The other three menus were made up of unit dishes. All study menus were presented with or without a carbon label for each dish option.

“Carbon labels include a number indicating the amount of CO2 the growth and production of the dish’s ingredients would emit, and a color indicating whether it emits a high (red), medium (yellow) or low (green) amount of CO2 ., compared to other dishes on the same menu,” study author Benedikt Seger told ZME Science.

The study was conducted in imaginary restaurants made online with 265 participants, who did not actually eat or pay for the dishes they ordered. This allowed the researchers to apply the labels and default values ​​to a wide range of restaurants, including Indian, Italian, Mexican and Chinese restaurants, the researchers explained.

Sample menus. Image credits: Betz et al.

Overall, the study showed that default switches and labels reduce the share of carbon-intensive dishes and also reduce the amount of CO2 associated with the chosen dishes. On average, the default switches reduced carbon emissions by 300 grams of CO2 per dish, while the labels reduced emissions by 200 grams of CO2 per dish.

It has to do with the big difference between the dishes, Seger said. For example, a vegan spaghetti dish from the Italian menu produced only 130 grams of CO2, while the beef dishes included in our menus were associated with two or even three kilograms of CO2. The results might also be overestimated because this is an online study, he added.

“In real-life restaurant situations, many other factors will influence the decision, including the presence of other customers and the sight and smell of what they ordered. Nevertheless, these clear results are quite encouraging. restaurateurs who want to get involved in climate protection trying to include default labels and switches in their menus,” Seger said.

The study was published in the journal PLOS Climate.


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