Would you be more inclined to pass on the chocolate cake if you knew how many minutes of jogging it would take to work it off? And are you clear on which labels indicate that food should be thrown away? As more people are trying to spend less on food, be more eco-conscious and look after their health—all at the same time—recent studies show how we can be guided by food labels to make the right choices.
The Confusion Around ‘Use By’ And ‘Best By’ Dates
Charles Haverfield at US Packaging and Wrapping says that grocery stores across the U.S. are increasingly removing ‘best by’ dates from products because they are too confusing for consumers to understand.
As the USDA reports that the average American household wastes up to 40% of its food each year, stores are trying to encourage people to keep their food for longer before throwing it in the bin.
Many stores are keeping the ‘use by’ date, which they say is essential, but taking away the ‘best by’ date, which consumers can sometimes think means the same thing. ‘Best by’ dates simply refer to the date at which food is at its best, while ‘use by’ dates should never be ignored as they refer to the point at which the food becomes unsafe to eat.
Aldi, a leading low-cost supermarket in the U.K. recently pledged to remove ‘best before’ dates from 60% of its lines. Interestingly, one of its competitors, Morissons, confirmed at the beginning of 2022 that it would scrap ‘use by’ dates for milk, preferring that consumers use the ‘sniff test’ to determine if milk is still okay to drink.
Morissons said it would still keep ‘best before’ dates to show when the milk was at its peak flavor, but believes that too much milk is wasted each year because people go by the printed dates, when they should actually be working it out for themselves—330,000 tonnes of milk is thrown away every year, about 7% of total UK production.
Eco-Labels Work In Encouraging Sustainable Eating
A recent study in Behavioural Public Policy showed that people were more likely to choose sustainable food options if they were nudged in the right direction.
An online randomised survey asked 1399 adults (representative of the U.K. population in terms of age, gender and ethnicity) to choose from three menus, when ordering a food delivery. They were asked to choose from a choice of burritos (beef, chicken and vegetarian) that were the same price, the same calorie content and with the same fair trade logo.
One third of people were asked just to order on that basis. One third were asked to order when the vegetarian option had a ‘social nudge’—that is to say that it said ‘most popular’. The final third chose when there was an ‘eco nudge’—when the food was ranked on sustainability. The beef was ranked 5 (unsustainable, red), the chicken, three (neither sustainable nor unsustainable, yellow) and the vegetarian a 1 (sustainable, green).
More people chose vegetarian (84%) in the eco-label condition compared with the control (69%). In the social nudging, more people went for the chicken than the vegetarian but both before the beef.
Run 15 Minutes To Work Off This Can Of Coke
Another recent study by behavioral scientists suggests that food labels should include how much exercise it would take to wear off the calories within. The study by Loughborough University, presented at the International Congress on Obesity in Melbourne, found that adults understand more about food advice when it is given in exercise terms rather than in traffic lights systems.
The study of 2,600 people found that people thought information that said “if you eat this portion of cake you’ll need to walk for 90 minutes” more effective in understanding calories. And it might just lead to less food waste too.
How To Eat Out Sustainably
If you’re starting to think about how to eat out more sustainably, there are lots of things you can do to reduce your food waste and carbon impact. For starters, always turn up to a reservation or call to cancel—restaurants buy in the the amount of food they think they will need, so doing this will help reduce food waste.
You could choose restaurants with smaller or fixed menus—restaurants won’t know what you want to eat, but by limiting choice they will be able to control food waste (and they’ll probably do a better job of cooking the same thing time after time). The food will also likely be fresher.
Eat at places where they spend less energy on things that aren’t the food—tablecloths cost money to clean or replace (paper or cloth), and menus are more eco if they are accessed on your phone, on chalkboards or on the wall.
Lastly, don’t forget the ingredients. Vegetarian options are often carbon-lighter but make sure all ingredients are more local. If you’re drinking alcohol, go for locally brewed beer and batched cocktails.