Can Food Labels Drive Consumers to Choose Less Carbon-Intense Diets?

A survey of 1,000 people has found that consumers greatly underestimate the greenhouse gases it takes to produce certain foods, in some cases by multiples of ten, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The research also found, however, that placing carbon footprint labels on food packaging effectively drives people to buy less carbon-intense ingredients.

The study, led by consumer psychologist Adrian Camilleri of the University of Technology Sydney, asked survey participants to estimate the amount of greenhouse gas emitted to produce one serving of 19 different foods, and by using 18 electrical appliances for one hour. Those surveyed underestimated the emissions for electrical appliances, but even more so for foods.

“With an appliance such as a heater you can feel the energy used and see an electricity bill at the end of the month, so the impact is quite salient, whereas the impact of food production is largely invisible,” Camilleri said in a statement. “If you ask people to guess the difference between items such as beef and vegetable soup on the environment they assume there is not much difference. But beef soup creates more than 10 times the amount of greenhouse gases than vegetable soup.”

People surveyed, for example, equated the impact of one serving of beef with turning on a 25 watt CFL bulb for an hour. But in reality, one serving of beef emits as much greenhouse gas emissions as running a microwave oven for two hours.

Camilleri and her colleagues then showed 120 of the survey participants a choice of soups to buy, some with carbon footprint labels that equated emissions to lighting a lightbulb for a length of time, and some without. When consumers were aware of how much greenhouse gas was emitted to produce each can, they bought the low-emissions option more often.

“The choices we make at the dinner table can have a significant impact on global challenges such as climate change, and our research shows consumers are keen to make that choice,” Camilleri said.