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Health warnings can nudge consumers to eat less meat

28 March 2022

Labelling indicating the health risks associated with red meat could help lower consumption, tests show.

Consumers are more likely to be dissuaded from eating red meat by warning labels relating to its harmful health effects rather than its associated environmental impact, research has shown.

In tests where consumers were given the option of ready meals labelled as harmful to the environment, health, or both, they were more likely to be influenced by health warnings, especially those relating to a specific condition.

The findings suggest that warning labels may aid efforts to deliver the targets of the recently released National Food Strategy in the UK, which suggests nudging consumer habits to deliver a 30 per cent reduction in meat consumption over the next 10 years.

Warning labels alone will not make significant headway, but could support progress as part of a package of measures to nudge consumer action, scientists say.

Consumer attitudes

A team of researchers investigated whether warning labels on food packaging might serve as a strategy to reduce red meat consumption, to deliver the twin benefits of improving health and reducing harm to the environment caused by raising livestock.

Groups of participants in the online study, conducted in the US, were shown beef, chicken and vegetarian varieties of burrito, with the red meat option labelled with a health or environmental warning, both, or neither. People were asked to choose which of the products was most damaging to health and to the environment, and to indicate their preferred product.

Overall, the experiment did not make participants less likely to opt for red meat, but the health warning did make people more likely to identify red meat as damaging to health.

Specific health warnings associated with red meat – relating to colon and rectal cancer – were found to be more discouraging among consumers than a general warning of risk of early death.

The impact of warnings on product selection was stronger among people who ate more meat, the outcomes suggest, which may be valuable in targeting this important demographic.

The findings chime with previous studies showing that people adopt vegetarianism for health reasons rather than meat’s impact on the environment, regardless of their views on climate change.

They also echo earlier findings relating to warnings on tobacco products, where those detailing risk of specific cancers were found to be more impactful than those with a general health warning.

Despite little evidence of shifting consumer behaviour for the environmental impact of meat production, researchers suggest that labelling could raise awareness of this aspect and influence shoppers in future.

The research team was led by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and included the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, and the University of Amsterdam.

The study was funded by Welcome and published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

"Our findings give valuable insights into how warning labels are perceived by consumers and could inform efforts to use food labelling as a nudge towards reduced meat consumption, as a package of measures to influence people’s decision making around what they choose to eat," said Dr Lindsay Jaacks, Chancellor's Fellow Global Challenges, Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security

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