Is a ‘Eco-Conscious’ Change to Restaurant Menus on the Horizon?

Key Takeaways:

  • Restaurants could help battle the climate crisis by using emission indicative labels on their menus, showing customers the carbon footprint of individual meals.
  • A study involving digital simulation of dining experiences with over 250 volunteers showed that menus with eco-conscious labels and default green meal options could potentially reduce carbon emissions by significant amounts.
  • While the study’s results were generally positive, it is acknowledged that the choice of meals by dining customers may be influenced by other factors such as the presence of other guests or sight and smell of their orders.
  • Various stakeholders respond differently to the idea of eco-conscious menus, with some seeing it as a great marketing tool, some as a valuable information source, while others might disregard it just like they do calorie and fat data.
  • Taking up eco-conscious dining doesn’t solely lie on emission indicative labels but also more proactive actions like walking instead of driving to the restaurant, opting for smaller meal sizes, preventing over-ordering, and always ensuring no food goes to waste.

Considering the prospects of restaurants adopting menus that vividly elucidate the environmental implications — or “carbon footprint” — of individual meal options.

In a broader context, we contemplate ways in which restaurant proprietors can play a substantial role in battling the climate crisis with ‘soft measures’ that won’t require altering their range of dish offerings,” unfolds study author Benedikt Seger. He forwards his research from the realm of Psychology at the distinguished Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg.

Emission Indicative Labelling

Imagine a salad that comes adorned with beef termed “high emission” signifying the meal renders a higher carbon footprint — perhaps equating to 2 or 3 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) — thereby indicating a less eco-friendly choice.

Conversely, a dish of vegan spaghetti could carry a tag like “low emission,” essentially making it a greener choice as it might generate only about 130 grams of CO2. If suitably communicated, this data could considerably influence diners’ restaurant selections.

Action-Oriented Study

In the study, investigators concocted nine menus that reflected a diverse spectrum of restaurant styles, including Chinese, Italian, and Indian dishes, and American-style hamburgers.

The menus were presented to over 250 volunteer diners in a digital simulation of a dining experience. Some menus came with a twist: default meals that customers could tweak to shades of green or otherwise, by adding or removing components such as beef, poultry, or falafel. The result was a substantial environmental triumph.

“In terms of averages,” remarked Seger, “the default switches reduced carbon emissions by 300 grams CO2 per meal. And the meal labels cut emissions by an average of 200 grams CO2 per meal.”

It’s worth acknowledging that when offered similar menus in an actual dining setting, the choices customers make might deviate as other factors could sway their decision. Among these factors could be the presence of other guests and the sight and smell of their orders,” he noted.

“Nonetheless, these clear results are quite inspiring,” stated Seger. The results demonstrate a readiness among many to think about the climate crisis in their day-to-day decisions, even when their intention is solely to enjoy a pleasant time and savour their meal.”

For this idea to prosper, Seger emphasized that restaurants will need to seize the opportunity and revamp their menus.

Diverse Opinions

Lona Sandon, the program director of clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, posited that the green menu approach might yield varying outcomes. “It’s likely to be an excellent marketing tool for some eateries,” Sandon said. “Certain places might embrace it immediately.”

Amongst consumers, “Some might find it appealing and utilize the information to make choices,” she added.

However, Sandon noted that “Others might dismiss it similar to the way they disregard the calorie and fat data.” And of course, there’s the issue of precisely determining the carbon footprint of a particular meal.

As Sandon highlighted, the food system is a complex entity. “The factors involved in producing and processing a food item vary significantly, depending on its origin and the grower’s practices and capacity to limit greenhouse gas production.”

Additionally, she suggested that there are alternate ways of dining out responsibly. “I’d be more interested in understanding a restaurant’s waste management efforts and techniques to reduce resource overuse rather than carbon footprint figures on a menu,” she shared.

Sandon also espoused that consumers already have many proactive alternatives at their disposal. These include walking to the restaurant instead of driving, opting for smaller meal sizes, preventing over-ordering, and making an effort to always bring home leftovers.

The findings of this intriguing study are published in the May 11 issue of ‘_PLOS Climate_’.

More information

Find more insights on sustainable eating at Harvard School of Public Health.

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