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One cheeseburger, large fries, and a side of damaging environmental impact; what if that could change?

Maayan Rotnes Cohen

A randomized clinical trial among over 5,000 US adults in 2022 tested whether or not labeling fast food choices based on their environmental impact would sway consumers' preferences. The study found that consumers were 23% more likely to choose the sustainable option with labels stating which choices affect the climate negatively. Additionally, 10% more likely to choose the sustainable option when there are labels stating which choices affect the environment positively.

Ultimately, the study concluded that climate impact labeling may be an effective strategy to combat climate change. This can alter consumers' choices in a way that benefits the environment.

The question now is: Can this idea truly help combat the climate crisis? The LA Times states, “If, at a population level, we made even just some minor shifts to the way we make our food choices, substituting some beef items for less impactful choices, there can be a really measurable effect on climate change,” said Julia Wolfson, lead author of the study and associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

If climate labeling was implemented both positively and negatively in fast food restaurants, it could reduce the red-meat choice of meals by roughly 33%. Red meat, like beef, is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Data from The World Resources Institute shows how red meat has a dramatically higher greenhouse gas impact compared to other crops (Figure 1).

Labeling is not uncommon in many major restaurants. Throughout history, there have been labels for calories, sodium, sugar, and other health warnings. This has slowly altered consumers' choices and helped with health issues such as diabetes and obesity.

With consumers having instant information about the consequences or benefits of their food choice, it allows them to have personal autonomy and empowerment in taking action towards helping the environment in small ways.

Some food chains, like Panera and Chipotle, have already implemented labeling certain food choices that are carbon footprint positive. Which according to the study, has a 10% change in consumption choices. Currently, it is not mainstream for fast food restaurants to label their options under a negative environmental label, however, the research shows that these warnings would be the most effective way to promote change.

According to the LA Times, “There are certainly people who are not going to change, but there are also people who do adapt. Building knowledge and awareness around the way our food choices do affect climate change, that is one direct action that we, as individuals, can take to mitigate climate change,” said Wolfson.

If the research from this study could be implemented on a greater scale, it could lead to a decline in red meat consumption and an overall positive change in helping mitigate climate change. It would allow consumers to have a sense that their choices matter. Having personal autonomy is rooted in having information. By consumers being able to see the climate impact information in their decision making, they can fully understand the extent to which their choices matter. Climate labelling is truly a way for individuals to be more sustainable, one side of fries at a time.


1.Briscoe, Tony. “McChicken vs. Big Mac: Could Environmental Labels Transform American Burger Culture?” Los Angeles Times, 28 Dec. 2022,

2. “Greenhouse Gases?” #NoBeef, 2023,

3. Wolfson, Julia, et al. “Effect of Climate Change Impact Menu Labels on Fast Food Ordering Choices Among US Adults A Randomized Clinical Trial.” Jama Network, 2022,


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