How green is your food? Eco-labels can change the way we eat, study shows

It's lunchtime in a Birmingham workplace cafeteria. Employees returning to work after being away for months due to the coronavirus pandemic notice something is different. The sign reads: "We have new eco-labels."
Oxford University researchers have analysed every food item on the menu. They have given each dish an environmental impact score (from vegetable soup (an "A") to spring onion, cheese, tuna bagel, and tuna sandwich (an "E").

Natasha King said that it does help to make some decisions while you eat a hot, plant-based meal. She works in Birmingham, the headquarters of Compass Group's UK division. To test if a label could change how people eat, the company has teamed with the university.

It is not difficult to convince people to choose environmentally sustainable food choices through labels. There are hundreds of labels available, ranging from organic labels to ones that guarantee sustainable fishing. A new type of label is emerging that combines multiple environmental indicators, from water use to greenhouse gas emissions, into one letter. It indicates the product's impact.

One year ago, some businesses in France started using it. Foundation Earth, an NGO dedicated to the protection of the environment, announced that its own trial will be conducted in UK and EU supermarkets this fall.

The diners' perception of the sign is the first problem for scientists who are designing the trial. What information should you include on a label? How can you balance practicality and effectiveness?

Researchers conducted studies on an online grocery where fake money was given to people to purchase fake items. This trial revealed which labels are more likely to convince people to go eco-friendly. The best way to convince people not to buy an item was to use the dark red globe symbol with the word "worse" printed on it. However, this method was not perfect and had real-world limitations.

Brian Cook, senior researcher on the project, stated that you won't be able get anyone to use it unless they threaten them with legislation.

Sandwiches, and other eco-labelled products. Researchers believe that the greatest environmental impact will come from reducing meat consumption. Photograph by Tiffany Cassidy/The Guardian

What works in a cafeteria setting with plenty of space for information beside the food may not work in a supermarket where there is already a lot of information. Cook stated that the real estate available is very competitive.

Next is the challenge of supermarkets: scale. This cafeteria offers only a small selection of Compass food options, including hot and cold sandwiches, soups, as well as hot dishes. The Oxford researcher Michael Clark was tasked with analyzing the environmental impacts of the many meals that were made up of approximately 10 ingredients. It would take a lot of effort to do the same thing for all the products and ingredients found in supermarkets.

The scientists then had to devise a formula for determining environmental impact. This was a difficult process that required a lot of data and involved many hard decisions. Cook explained that there are endless ways to do it, and you can choose how you weight each indicator.

The research team chose four indicators to be used in the trials formula: water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss. Each indicator was weighted equally to maximize their overall impact.

Another research looked at land use rather than biodiversity or used 16 indicators. It doesn't matter what choice you make, it can impact the eco-score.

Almonds are great for your health, low in many environment indicators and good for your heart. But then, when you get to the water, they are amazing, Cook stated.

Researchers say that the best thing for the environment is to make people eat less meat. Clark stated that Clark believes that science-based approaches may not be the best because the goal is to change behaviours.

The traffic-light system for eco scores ranks the environmental cost of food. Photo: No Credit

He suggested that national label rollouts might be based on indicators already prioritized by businesses or mandated to governments to facilitate business integration.

Five employees sit at a corner table in the Compass cafeteria. Four of them have selected a vegetarian meal. Many of them would have chosen meat, they say.

Jenny Haines is seated at another table, enjoying a vegetable stew (rated C). Although she doesn't often think about the impact of food on the environment, Jenny Haines says that the vegetable stew she was eating looked good and healthy.

Compass aimed to encourage customers to purchase food with a lower environmental impact score. The top menus feature plant-based dishes, while the cafe counters display meat dishes. So that people don't feel compelled to eat their food, they have rebranded their dishes. Vegan sweet potato mac n cheese became Ultimate New York cheezy sweet potato mac, for example.

The heart of everything is the taste. Ryan Holmes, Compass' culinary director, stated that ticking all the boxes is not enough. Plant-based dishes should be able to stand alongside meat dishes.

This issue is also of interest to politicians. This year, MPs from Canada and the UK introduced private members bills that would require food to include environmental labels.

Cook makes presentations to UK policymakers and business groups. He says that labels are very popular. Cook believes that we will soon see labels on products in some form.

He said that it is a part of your toolkit. This is a relatively low-risk item in terms of things that could be dangerous for all parties.