Consumers ‘may not understand difference’ between a food’s carbon footprint and calories


The general public are confused about the difference between a food’s carbon footprint and calorie content, according to the study.

In the research, around 500 people were shown a series of images in random order, from one of ten food types (boiled rice, cheese, puffed rice cereal, boiled rice, baked beans, chicken breast, beef mince, fried chips, sliced apple, raw carrot) in one of three different portion sizes (small, medium, large).

They were then asked to estimate the carbon footprint, calories and weight of the foods, via either a multiple-choice selection of answers, a slider bar with minimum and maximum ranges, or a text box where respondents could type a numerical estimate.

Most participants overestimated the carbon footprints of the food they were shown (75%), with fewer underestimating (11%) the footprint and 14% correctly guessing the amount.

About 60% of people overestimated the energy content (calories) of the foods, with 17% underestimating, and 24% correctly guessing the correct amounts.

A crucial, and surprising finding of the study was that there was a strong correlation between peoples’ estimates of a food’s carbon footprint with their estimates of its energy content, which counters the findings of previous research.

While people could correctly estimate a difference in energy content between small, medium and large portions of food, they were not able to distinguish a difference in carbon footprint between small and medium portions of food.

The fact most people were unable to accurately estimate or distinguish between the energy content and carbon footprint of food, highlights the need for further education of the public, with particular focus on understanding the carbon footprint of food, said Dr Christian Reynolds, Lecturer in Food Policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, and research lead on the study.

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