What should a good menu include? The names and prices of dishes are a given, and other menus often display other details such as a description, dietary information such as calories, and the source of local products. But what about food’s carbon footprint?
A team of researchers at Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg in Germany are calling for restaurants to offer menus that clearly label the environmental impact of specific meal options.
For example, a salad that comes with beef would be labelled “high emission.” That would mean the meal generates a higher carbon footprint and is therefore less environmentally friendly. Conversely, a vegan spaghetti dish would be labelled “low emission” and would therefore be greener.
Study author Benedikt Seger, a postdoctoral research scientist with the Department of Psychology at the university, and the investigators put together nine menus in all, reflecting what Seger called “a broad range of restaurant types” that included Chinese, Italian, and Indian dishes, alongside American-style burgers.
The menus were offered to just over 250 volunteer diners in an online simulation of a dining experience, meaning no actual eating was involved. In some cases, the menus came with default meals that the customer could modify to be more or less green via the addition or elimination of components like beef, poultry, or falafel.
The result, said Seger, was a big environmental win and the conclusion that including food’s carbon footprint information on menus could do a lot to sway diners’ restaurant choices.
“On average,” he noted, per Nourish by WebMD, “the default switches reduced carbon emissions by 300 grams of carbon dioxide per dish, and the labels reduced the emissions by an average 200 grams per dish.”
Seger acknowledged that the choices that customers would make when offered similar menus in a real-world setting might be different, as “there will be many other factors that influence the decision, including the presence of other guests and the sight and smell of what they have ordered.”
Nevertheless, he called the clear results “quite encouraging” and said they “show that many people are ready to consider the climate crisis in their everyday decisions, even in contexts where they only want to have a nice time and enjoy their meal.”
However, he noted that for this to work in the real world, restaurants will need to “take their chances and redesign their menus.”
Lona Sandon, program director of clinical nutrition with the School of Health Professions at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said that adding food’s carbon footprint information to menus would make for “a great marketing tool” for some restaurants. “I can see some would jump right on board with this,” she said, adding that some consumers would certainly embrace the move.
However, she warned that “others will ignore it just as they ignore the calorie and fat information.”
Not only that, but evidentially and accurately determined what a particular food’s carbon footprint really is would no the a simple task.
“The food system is very complex,” Sandon said. “And the inputs that go into producing and processing a food item varies greatly, and will depend on where it is coming from, and the grower’s own practices and ability to limit greenhouse gas production…
“One must consider all the resources that go into transporting the vegetable to a packing and processing plant, and the steps involved in transporting — boat, plane, train or truck — the finished product — fresh, frozen, chopped or prewashed — to the restaurant to end up on your plate,” Sandon added.