Climate Impact Labels on Fast Food Reduce Red Meat Consumption

Negative labels work better than positive ones.

Burger with label

Chas53 / Getty Images Label by Wolfson, et al.

Raising livestock and the crops they eat is a big chunk of the carbon emissions from agriculture. But it is hard to change people's habits and get them to give up their hamburgers, especially since more than one-third of Americans eat fast food every day. We previously called for carbon labels on everything from buildings to burgers. Now, a new study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health found that labels on fast food affected people's choices.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open, said shifting current dietary patterns to more sustainable diets with less red meat could reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 55%— Treehugger's Katherine Martinko has covered studies showing a slightly lower number—and would have other health benefits.

The 5,000 participants in the study were shown fake menus. One group got menus with high-climate impact labels on red meat items and another had low-impact labels on chicken, fish, or plant-based burgers. Both menus were effective in reducing the orders for red meat, but interestingly, the high-impact labels were far more effective, with 23% of participants choosing a more environmentally sustainable selection, while menus listing low-impact choices encouraged only 10% of the participants to change.

"We found that labeling red meat items with negatively framed, red high–climate impact labels was more effective at increasing sustainable selections than labeling non–red meat items with positively framed, green low–climate impact labels," wrote the authors of the study.

But as lead author Julia Wolfson, said in a statement, the labels worked. “These results suggest that menu labeling, particularly labels warning that an item has high climate impact, can be an effective strategy for encouraging more sustainable food choices in a fast food setting."


Julia Wolfson, et al.

The study does point out that negative labels might not be popular:

"It is unlikely that industry would voluntarily adopt a negatively framed label approach; such an approach may need to be mandated or incentivized via legislation or regulation. However, negatively framed, high–climate impact labels may easily be adopted in settings like workplaces, universities, hospitals, and other anchor institutions with carbon neutrality commitments."

They have a point: This label is aggressively negative, more like a cigarette warning than a food label. In the study limitations section, the authors note that "future research should test more label designs using qualitative and quantitative research on how people understand different climate impact labels and messages."

The study authors asked participants about age, income, political leanings, and climate skepticism, which I thought would make a big difference, with conservative white men aiming for the red label.

"It is notable that we did not observe differences in label effects by sociodemographic characteristics other than sex, for which the effect of high–climate impact labels was stronger for female participants. It is especially surprising that the effects of climate impact labels did not differ based on underlying concerns about climate change or health."

Perhaps, as the study authors noted, "despite the large sample size in our study, we may not have had sufficient power to detect subgroup differences." Who can ever forget former White House advisor to former President Donald Trump, Sebastian Gorka, who complained of Treehugger types: “They want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers.” That big red label might be red meat to them.

View Article Sources
  1. Wolfson, Julia A., et al. “Effect of Climate Change Impact Menu Labels on Fast Food Ordering Choices Among US Adults.” JAMA Network Open, vol. 5, no. 12, 2022. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.48320

  2. "Study Finds Climate Impact Labels on Sample Fast Food Menu Had Strong Effect on Food Selection." Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. News. 4 Jan. 2023. Press release.