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Restaurants' menu designs could reduce carbon impact of eating out

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Restaurant menus that promote climate-friendly default options and provide labels indicating the carbon footprint of each dish could lower the carbon impact of dining out, research suggests.

Previous research has shown that an individual’s food choices substantially affect their personal carbon footprint. However, most studies examining factors that influence environmentally relevant food choices have focused on purchasing of groceries eaten at home.

Researchers at the University of Würzburg explored how restaurant menu design might influence diners’ climate-relevant choices.

They created nine hypothetical menus in order to test two design approaches: carbon labels indicating the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with each dish, and for dishes with components that could be modified, setting the default component to either a low- or a high-emission option.

In an online study, 256 volunteers each selected one dish from each of the nine hypothetical menus, which varied in cuisine, presence of modifiable dishes, climate friendliness of default options, and presence of carbon labels.

One example of such a dish was a couscous salad that could be ordered with beef (high emission), shawarma (poultry; medium emission), or falafel (low emission).

Statistical analysis of the results showed that participants selected more climate-friendly dishes when carbon labels were present, as well as when defaults consisted of low- rather than high-emission options. These findings are in line with results from earlier studies that explored the two approaches separately.

The researchers also suggest that restaurant operators could employ both carbon labels and low-emission default options in an effort to lower their business’s carbon footprint. Meanwhile, more research is needed to inform such strategies, including investigations into interactions between the two approaches, the impact of personal habits – such as vegetarianism – on menu choices, and menu choices in real-world settings.

“If we want more climate-friendly restaurant visits, highlighting dish components on a menu can really be an important parameter because it communicates what is normal and recommended. It may also be one of the easiest things restaurant owners can do,” the authors added.

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