On restaurant menus, environmental metrics are the new calorie counts

Fast casual restaurants around the country are making environmental metrics available to customers

Published December 30, 2020 12:15PM (EST)

Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. is a chain of restaurants in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and France, specializing in Mission burritos and tacos.  (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. is a chain of restaurants in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and France, specializing in Mission burritos and tacos. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on FoodPrint.


One of the current seasonal offerings at Just Salad is the Sweet Mama, made with spinach, apples, turkey bacon, walnuts and white cheddar. According to the menu, the salad's production resulted in .56kg carbon dioxide equivalents (CO₂e), which is 85 percent lower than the greenhouse gas emissions produced by a quarter-pound beef patty. If you want to reduce the carbon footprint of your lunch even further, choose the Tokyo Supergreens; it's on the "Climatarian menu" and has a footprint of just .36kg CO₂e.

With the launch of carbon calculations and low-footprint selections in September, the popular New York-based salad chain is now one of many fast casual restaurants around the country making environmental metrics available to customers.

In collaboration with the World Resources Institute (WRI), Panera is now labeling menu items that fall below a determined per-meal threshold as "Cool Food Meals."  And in October, Chipotle introduced Real Foodprint, a tracker customers can use to calculate how the ingredients in their burritos stack up against a "conventional" burrito, on factors like emissions, water use and antibiotics. On the West Coast, Bamboo Sushi and sister restaurant Quickfish offer carbon calculations for each ingredient used on their menus, as well as a map of where each seafood ingredient comes from and the method used to fish or farm it. (Mackerel? Norway, purse seine.)

"Many Americans don't know that there is a difference in climate impacts [related to food choices]," said Sujatha Bergen, health campaigns director at the National Resources Defense Council. "So these labels not only give consumers information that they can use to combat climate change, it's also an acknowledgment that there is an impact. It's an important education vehicle."

But questions remain about whether the ways in which the information is being delivered will provide real opportunities for expanding knowledge or are merely marketing opportunities that fall short of making sourcing more transparent. As more companies are likely to follow suit, it's worth digging into how the calculations are being made so far and what experts think of the different approaches.

Zeroing in on greenhouse gas emissions

While other fast-casual restaurants continue to balk at the added costs and challenges of reducing single-use container waste, Just Salad launched a reusable bowl program in 2006. It has been extraordinarily successful ever since; 30 percent of customers now bring in reusable bowls, diverting 75,000 pounds of single-use plastic from landfills every year.

Chief sustainability officer Sandra Noonan wanted to build on that pioneering spirit of environmentalism on the climate front. "I really wanted to make a statement about the role of food in climate change, and I wanted to do it in a way that engaged our customers and started a conversation about climate," she said.

In other words, rather than just working on reducing the impact of menu items behind the scenes, carbon labeling asks the customer to make a choice, she said, thereby communicating that food choices matter. While it's too soon to draw real conclusions, Noonan said preliminary data showed sales of low-footprint salads added to the "Climatarian" menu have been about 20 percent higher than before.

To get the numbers, Noonan and her team (with help from MBA students at New York University) gathered life cycle analysis data on every ingredient on the menu, which covered the emissions involved in production. Then, they estimated the emissions involved in transporting each ingredient from their specific suppliers and added those numbers. The measurement CO₂e is used because it includes and standardizes emissions of all three greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane.

Of course, CO₂e looks like a mysterious combination of letters and numbers to many people, and even the most knowledgeable likely don't know what a "good" number is. For example, a 300-calorie meal only sounds "light" if you know a healthy daily calorie intake is about 2,000 calories for the average adult. That's why Just Salad included detailed information on what the numbers mean and how it made its calculations on one webpage, and added the burger comparison on every single menu item online. (In the restaurants, menu boards include CO₂e labeling, but there's no space for burger math.) "Every American knows what a quarter-pound beef patty is. That's how we're tackling that," Noonan said. "Is that enough? I probably would say no, but it's a start."

Urvashi Rangan, a sustainable food systems expert and the chief science advisor for FoodPrint, said she thinks assigning numbers to the environmental impact of each meal is an idea that has merit, especially since it could help eaters make quantitative comparisons. But she worries that only labeling emissions oversimplifies the idea of sustainable food choices. (Noonan said choosing only emissions, for now, is a matter of bandwidth, prioritization, and also not overwhelming customers.)

"When we think about regenerative agriculture or better ways to do things overall, a true foodprint includes more than carbon. It includes water, soil health, animal health…It is not just one thing. It is this marriage of all these different things, and it's about having a systems approach," she said.

To tap the calorie comparison once again, most people understand that the number of calories in a meal is just one factor among many — protein content, sugar content, quality of the ingredients, antioxidant levels — that determines its healthfulness. So it is with environmental impact. "Ideally, what you would have is a true cost accounting system, which measures the cost of doing certain things, even secondary costs," Rangan said.

A bigger picture than environmental metrics

Chipotle doesn't go as far as utilizing a true cost accounting framework. Those frameworks, which look at a total foodprint as defined on this site, are especially important because they extend beyond ecological impacts to factors like animal welfare and labor practices. (The National Consumers League, for example, released a report documenting worker abuses at Chipotle locations earlier this year.)

But the Real Foodprint tracker does take an approach that emphasizes multiple ways food production impacts the planet. "There are many ways to measure impact, especially as it comes to food. We knew that we wanted to go beyond the one-metric approach that we see so often," said Caitlin Leibert, Chipotle's director of sustainability.

Leibert worked with sustainability data company HowGood to first pinpoint where the company sourcing had enough data to calculate meaningful metrics. Together, they settled on five: less carbon in the atmosphere, organic land supported, water saved, antibiotics avoided, and soil health improved. "The plan is to continue to evolve and grow the metrics that we use, hopefully adding different areas of focus over time," she said.

To develop the metrics, HowGood's researchers first created a standard for comparison in each category, estimating the baseline number for a "conventional" ingredient. That data comes from various sources depending on the metric, including peer-reviewed life-cycle analyses of ingredients and large global data sets like the Global Soil Atlas and the World Resources Institute's Water Risk Atlas. Then, they used data Chipotle provided on their suppliers and standards to do a modeled analysis of how the same ingredient scored when sourced in that specific way. "We're working with modeling and standards, we're not tracking each farm," explained Arthur Gillett, HowGood's head of research.

Take tofu (the main ingredient in their "sofritas"), for example. To calculate "less carbon in the atmosphere," HowGood estimated the standard greenhouse gas emissions associated with conventional soy production and processing into tofu. For comparison, Gillett, explained, there is solid research that now shows with soy, specifically, organic farming results in lower emissions. Since Chipotle is sourcing 100 percent of its soybeans organically, they would then calculate the savings, per portion, based on the savings reported in that research. If your order includes cilantro, you'll see the number for "organic land supported" tick up a bit, but not as much as with tofu, because about half of the cilantro currently purchased is organic, so the calculation takes that into account. The "water saved" metric calculated how the company's suppliers both used less and polluted less water. So something like rotationally grazed beef would score higher on water saved compared to conventional CAFO beef (beef raised in concentrated animal feedlot operations). In 2019, about 28 percent of the company's beef came from farms practicing rotational grazing, so choosing beef might show water savings based on that proportion of overall purchasing.

In the end, for the consumer using the Real Foodprint tracker, the numbers call attention to various environmental impacts, the differences between conventional and organic/sustainable ingredients and Chipotle's efforts to improve their sourcing compared to other chains. But for an uninformed eater, they are not likely to convey any information on exactly how to make sustainable food choices (other than eating at Chipotle). Here's the problem: By focusing on comparing ingredients to the "standard," the tracker ignores comparisons between different foods. So, if you add steak to your burrito, you see that you've achieved less carbon in the atmosphere and avoided antibiotics. If you choose veggies instead, those numbers don't budge. This creates the illusion that beef is better than vegetables on those metrics, when in fact, plant-based foods always have a lower carbon footprint and never contain antibiotics. (The supplemental information provided to explain each metric, however, is useful beyond the menu.)

And on the comparison front, as more restaurants take on projects like this, it can be very difficult to compare metrics from one restaurant to another. Just Salad's carbon calculations include transportation, for example, while the WRI calculations Panera uses do not. "Eventually, we need to see these kinds of systems rooted in some sort of standardized accounting," Rangan said. "I think given . . . we're generating new numbers and new metrics, it's fine. But it's really about striking a balance between assessing enough to give you that number while also being transparent about what you are including in that, so that people are very clear on what these numbers represent and what they don't represent."

One thing to keep in mind is that metrics are necessary when systems are operating at a large scale, because it's otherwise difficult to assess value based on actual practices. If you're shopping at the farmers' market or are eating at a local restaurant that sources from small farms, you don't need a soil health metric because you can ask about specific farm practices. Of course that's not always possible, and compared to Wendy's or any other big fast food chain, Chipotle's standards are the most thoughtful: chickens are raised without antibiotics and are given more space. Some come from systems with additional animal welfare certifications, and the company has been working on additional broiler chicken welfare commitments. But they are still raised in CAFOs, and at Chipotle's scale, that will likely never change.

On the other hand, Chipotle has figured out how to source all pork from operations that raise sows either outdoors or in open barns with deep bedding, and in 2019, about 28 percent of its beef came from rotational grazing systems. Many believe in the power of even small changes made at a large scale, and Gillett said one of the reasons HowGood was interested in the project was that continuous updates are built into the tracker, giving the company regular opportunities to improve its numbers.

"One of the things that got us excited is they now have a scorecard that's public and then they can work to improve against that," he said. "Just by putting it out there and normalizing that, it's an implied promise that they're going to live up to."

At Just Salad, Noonan is already using the emissions data to shift purchasing decisions. For example, after many of the dressings scored high due to dairy, the culinary team began looking at other places dairy showed up on the menu and experimenting with vegan cheeses. She also noted that when the company shifted to a supplier that used farms and a distribution center closer to the restaurants, some of the emissions scores went down.  Bergen, of NRDC, said those shifts could add up to real change. "The biggest thing [food companies] could do is reduce the volume of climate-intensive foods that they buy and shift their purchases towards climate-friendly foods like plants," she said. "So companies should pair these consumer education strategies with time-bound, specific, measurable goals to drive down the climate emissions associated with their menus, and I think [creating these metrics] could be one of the tools to do that."

By Lisa Elaine Held

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