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Is That Food Really Carbon Neutral?


Food sustainability has increasingly become a popular, as food waste becomes a major topic of concern. Many food companies are under a watchful eye to reduce not only their carbon footprint but their environmental impact across the entire supply chain. Because of this, sustainability is now a factor in which many companies are now integrating into their operations. However, how much of an impact are these companies really making? Is there any truth to these companies’ claims? Why should we care? What does it mean?

Let’s find out more.

Reducing Emissions

To effectively reduce emissions, we need to collectively cut our emissions as close to zero as possible. Food companies can do so in several different ways:

· Finding more energy-efficient methods to make their foods, such as opting for renewable energy to power their operations, or by using electric vehicles to transport their goods.

· Buying ingredients from eco-friendly farms that reduce emissions or grow crops that soak up carbon like a sponge. By doing so, food waste is also prevented.

· Moving away from plastic made from crude oil or natural gas and only using recycled materials in their packaging is another way food companies can reduce their carbon footprint.

But many companies take an easier route to balance their carbon books through carbon offsets.

Carbon offsets are used to fund projects that are sustainable. Some ways companies can reduce their carbon footprint is by investing in solar or wind farms, increasing the utilization of electric transportation, paying landowners not to cut down their trees and instead plant more, or investing in farming practices that store carbon. However, there are limitations to this concept as it’s completely unregulated with low transparency. Therefore, as consumers, we need to be wary of companies claiming to be “carbon neutral”. It is important to note that plant foods (not necessarily plant-based) will be considered more sustainable, as beef and dairy products tend to produce more carbon emissions in the production process.

Let’s look at some seemingly carbon-friendly food companies…

· Cool Foods: The Cool Food Pledge is a commitment that companies, restaurants, cities, universities, and other organizations can make to reduce the climate impact of the food served in their establishments. At establishments such as the U.S. restaurant chain, Panera Bread, a Cool Food Meal label has since been created to help consumers navigate a sustainable meal choice. Some standout dishes that Panera serves include the Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich, Fuji Apple Chicken Salad, and Teriyaki Chicken & Broccoli Bowl. Some choices that don’t get the Cool Foods stamp of approval include meals with red meat, as they often are responsible for over 72 pounds of CO2 emissions. Overall, Cool Foods Meals aren’t necessarily the most nutritious, but they are considered eco-friendly.

· Chipotle: This popular chain restaurant promotes sustainability through its Real Foodprint tool, estimating the impact of Chipotle’s ingredients on overall water use, on-farm CO2 emissions, antibiotic use, soil health, and land used to grow food organically. However, these numbers are compared next to industry averages, which are seemingly large in comparison. Due to this, the Real Foodprint tool provides false advertising to customers looking to make a sustainable food choice. Rather than promoting tofu or chicken as the more sustainable food choice, it instead promotes a burrito bowl with steak as the more sustainable meal choice. Overall, this tool may help Chipotle’s image but fails to make a real impact on climate change concerns by providing skewed estimates through its carbon footprint tool.

· Sweetgreen: Sweetgreen provides a plant-rich food menu with no red meat, therefore would be considered more sustainable than most by emitting far less carbon than its competitors and the average American diet in general. On its menu, the carbon impact of each meal is given a score. However, these carbon estimates cannot be compared across companies, as they utilize different calculation methods. While they are mostly plant-based, it is still unclear how much Sweetgreen’s carbon offsets really protect the planet. Overall, from a nutritional perspective, this establishment is successful in providing delicious yet healthy options for the environmentally conscious individual.

Overall, if you are really looking to leave a “net-zero” carbon footprint, some of the best ways to do so include eating plant-based, growing a garden, buying less processed foods, reducing red meat intake, and/or buying locally sourced proteins and produce. These “carbon-neutral” claims popularly advertised by food companies are not always what they seem. However, for individuals looking to prioritize sustainability, cooking more, and eating out less may be the best start.

-Erica Richter, MS



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