The case for adding carbon emission information to menus besides calories

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Eating out used to be a treat but as more people prefer to grab meals outdoors or order a takeaway regularly, consumers are becoming conscious of, not only what they are ingesting, but also expelling into the atmosphere.

When the energy footprint manifests in food, it is called foodprint and more conscious consumers want to reduce the tracks they are leaving on the environment by making informed food choices.

This is however not a mandated by rule yet, but some researchers and activists argue that controlling the carbon footprint of our food could contribute in reaching the sustainable development goals faster.

How what is on your plate impacts the earth

Food related information has so far been limited to labelling calories that the edibles can load on you. Since April, all restaurants, cafes and takeaway stores that have more than 250 employees in the United Kingdom have been mandated to print calorie information of dishes, snacks, beverages on their menu cards to tackle an obesity epidemic.

The move was aimed at giving relief to the National Health Service (NHS) – UK’s publicly funded healthcare system that is tackling a wave of lifestyle diseases.
However, the well-intended scheme has divided activists. Some argued that restaurants would incur additional expenses for printing this information on menus at a time when they were already struggling to make a comeback post lockdowns induced by Covid-19. Other campaigners said that the calorie count could be counterproductive for people with eating disorders. Tom Quinn, of eating disorder charity Beat told the Press Association it can “increase a fixation on restricting calories for those with anorexia or bulimia, or increase feelings of guilt for those with binge-eating disorder”.

Others say printing nutritional facts rather than just the calorie count present a full picture of the food we are consuming.

While the case for printing nutritional information seems obvious, printing how much carbon our food emitted while being produced, processed and transported may not only have environmental benefits if people are persuaded to change their food habits but may also benefit local farmers and industries.

A Mexican food chain in UK has started giving its patrons information about the foodprint each of their meals is leaving. It has partnered with Swedish start-up called Klimato to calculate the carbon impact of each dish they are serving. It is detailed down to the production and distribution of every ingredient including farming, processing and transportation, according to a report by the EuroNews.

A recent study published in PLOS Climate in May 2022 revealed that having carbon labels on menus could modify user preferences and direct them toward greener – in terms of health and environment – options.

Simply reconfiguring menus can also have an impact other studies have shown. Authors of the research paper noted that in some online studies also replicated in cafeteria settings, participants chose vegetarian meals more often when they appeared at the top of the menu card rather than in a separate section.

Reports say that across the globe, food is responsible for 28 per cent of global carbon emissions.

The case for eating locally and seasonally

For consumers who like eating exotic foods, it may be wise to cultivate a taste for homegrown ingredients if you want to protect the environment. Many health experts also argue that eating what is available locally and seasonally is the best for our bodies. Imported foods are flown long distances, they often also have added chemicals to prevent ripening, adding to their carbon footprint.

As most Indians consume fresh foods produced locally, researchers have estimated that 87 per cent emission comes from food production followed by preparation (10 per cent), processing (2 per cent) and transportation (1 per cent).

According to a 2010 paper titled Carbon footprints of Indian food items, the authors studied Green House Gas (GHG) emissions from 24 Indian food items, revealing that animal and milk products mostly contributed to methane (CH4) emission while food product from crops released nitrous oxide (N2O).

The researchers found that a balanced diet (vegetarian) of an adult Indian man eating 1165 g food caused 723.7g CO2 eq (carbon dioxide equivalent) of emissions. The study further said that “a non-vegetarian meal with mutton emitted GHG 1.8 times of a vegetarian meal, 1.5 times of a non-vegetarian meal with chicken and an ovo-vegetarian meal and 1.4 times a lacto-vegetarian meal.”

According to a EuroNews article, the average carbon footprint of a meal is estimated to be 1.7kg CO2eq per dish. Estimates say that meals should be below 500g CO2eq to meet the UN’s 2030 sustainability goal targets.

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