We have all seen calorie counts next to menu items at our favorite cafés and restaurants. In fact, the UK began requiring restaurants with more than 250 employees to include the number of calories on their menus in 2022.
This might not be the only number you see attached to your favorite dishes, however. A growing number of restaurants are listing carbon emissions associated with food offerings as well.
Why, you ask? Let’s take a look.
Food and Climate
What we choose to eat has a significant impact on the environment. 35% of greenhouse gas emissions come from global food production, and unsurprisingly, different foods contribute different amounts – emissions from plant-based foods, for example, contribute 29%, animal-based foods conversely contribute 57%.
To address this, and meet ambitious climate targets, the UK’s Climate Change Committee has recommended that consumption of meat and dairy be reduced by 20% by 2030, and that meat consumption be cut by 35% by 2050.
This, in turn, has led several restaurants in the UK and around the world to start listing carbon emissions – both to educate the dining public on how different choices impact the environment, and to ensure compliance with the aforementioned climate recommendations.
This is not without support: A 2020 international study commissioned by the Carbon Trust surveyed 10,540 people across eight countries — Germany, Italy, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, the UK and the U.S. – and found that two-thirds were in favor of carbon labelling.
Carbon Emissions and Menu Choices
These numbers coincide with a more recent German study published in the journal PLOS Climate in 2022. This study showed diners increasingly conscious of menu items, and more likely to choose eco-friendly options when presented with emissions information.
The study looked like this:
256 people were asked by German researchers to choose an option from an online menu. A beef option, which has a significantly higher greenhouse gas footprint, was listed along with chicken, a medium-emissions option, and falafel, which emits the least amount of carbon.
30 different menus with slight variations were presented to the participants. For example, a pita sandwich with beef was listed on one, with falafel or chicken available for substitution at no extra charge. On another, falafel was listed as the default, with beef or chicken as the alternative.
Interestingly, participants were found to be significantly more likely to choose falafel when it was listed first – and with listing falafel as the default end up saving ≡ 0.5 kilograms of CO2 per order, which represents a 32% reduction in carbon emissions.
This brings us back to the beginning – and supports the idea that carbon labelling on restaurant menus can help reduce carbon emissions. When a restaurant menu prioritises lower-emission options, the public responds favorably.
To this end, some menus use graphics to represent menu choices as well – for example, spaghetti with garlic and olive oil, with only 0.13kg of emissions, is represented with a green-coloured graphic. Lasagne, on the other hand, with 1.85kg of emissions, is listed with a red graphic.
Restaurants Face Carbon Challenges
One problem, however, is feasibility: How many restaurants have the time and money to truly quantify their carbon labels?
Here is an example: Back in 2019, SkyCity restaurant The Sugar Club launched a low-carbon two-course menu, with its carbon emissions certified by Toitū Envirocare. When Josh Barlow, the chef at the time, learned his menu would not be considered low carbon, he had to start again from scratch.
“We had to do that another 3 or 4 times!” He told Stuff magazine. “[It] had to be a completely plant-based menu that focused on sourcing the ingredients as locally as possible and also making sure to create as little waste as possible… From start to finish it took over a year to make it happen.”
Menu certification by an independent organisation like Toitū is the most certain way to ensure dishes are carbon friendly. It is, however, very expensive. According to Barlow: “I doubt most restaurants would be able to justify the money to have a dish on the menu certified.”
No country has made environmental food labeling a requirement yet, though France is developing a universal labeling method called Eco-Score.
Postdoctoral researcher in the Livestock, Environment and People program at the University of Oxford Michael Clark acknowledges the need for government support: “There are around 120 ‘eco-labels’ on the market, from Fair Trade to organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified,” he said. “Until we have a single, unified metric, it is really difficult for consumers to make those food judgments themselves.”
Tools to Help Cut Down on Carbon Emissions
While carbon labelling is important, and including carbon emissions and other qualifiers on menus is certainly an important step in the fight against climate change, there are things restaurants can do to help in the meantime.
- Food Safety Labels help reduce food waste by ensuring items don’t miss their expiration dates
- WaitRpads have helped help servers get the orders right for years help improve efficiency in both the front and the back of the house and include space for menu prompts and additional order information
- The DateCodeGenie automated labelling system can quickly and easily provide labels for carbon information to include on to-go and takeout items
At the end of the day, we all have a role to play in tackling the climate crisis. With an increasing number of resources available, and customers increasingly interested in doing their part as well, restaurants can take the lead in cutting emissions and meeting climate goals now and in the future.