There was a time—not terribly long ago—where calorie counts on menus were a novelty, not the norm. (In 2006, New York City became the first city to adopt calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus and menu boards and in 2018, the Food and Drug Administration required all chains to include it.) While we know now that that calorie counting is not a perfect measure of health or nutrition, the move still made it somewhat easier for people to make more health-conscious choices when eating out. Now, Panera Bread is hoping to make the same level of change, this time with the environment in mind.

In October, the restaurant chain (which has over 2000 locations in the U.S.) announced its new carbon footprint labeling program, featuring a “Cool Food Meals” seal indicating which menu items have a low carbon footprint. (Carbon footprint, FYI, refers to the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted to create a product at all stages of production.)

“About a year ago, we started having a conversation about what issues consumers were concerned about and climate change was a big one that came up,” says Sara Burnett, Panera’s vice president of food values, sustainability, and public affairs. “It was something that we had not [previously] been able to translate down to what’s on someone’s plate and the impact that has on the environment.”

To do so, Panera Bread partnered with the non-profit World Resources Institute, which calculated the carbon footprint of every single menu item—and will continue doing so for anything new added to the menu. As with anything new, carbon footprint numbers will likely be confusing to most consumers, with few people knowing what constitutes a “good score.” And given the mixed success of calorie labels at spurring healthy changes, will noting carbon footprint “scores” truly impact what and how people eat? Here’s what to know about the new system.

How carbon footprints on menus are calculated

Daniel Vennard, the director and founder of the Better Buying Lab and Cool Food Pledge at WRI, says the way they calculated the carbon footprints for each Panera menu item was by calculating the carbon footprint for each ingredient in every dish. (For example, calculating the carbon footprint of avocado toast requires investigating the avocados themselves as well as the bread, seasonings, any added finishing oils, an extra poached egg on top, and literally anything else that’s in final product.)

But things quickly get complicated—which is why Vennard says the scores aren’t perfect. He says WRI doesn’t take into account any greenhouse gas emissions that may take place during the cooking process, since that’s a tiny part of the overall emissions for any food. It is also virtually impossible to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions for transporting food items to each specific Panera Bread location. (Instead, food items are given a regional score to account for transportation greenhouse gas emissions.) Vennard says that the vast amount of greenhouse gas emissions impact comes from the supply chain associated with growing and transporting the food. So that’s what the calculations focus on.

“In terms of what’s considered a ‘good’ score, this was based on standards set by the Paris Climate Agreement of what our daily carbon footprint from food should be [that won’t increase global warming],” Burnett says. WRI calculated what this threshold should be for each meal of the day. For breakfast, this is 3.59 kg CO2e/portion, and for lunch or dinner it’s 5.38kg CO2e/portion. Both WRI and Panera recognize that these scores are foreign to most people, which is why they designed a Cool Food Meals seal to indicate which menu items are below these thresholds. And it’s not meant to be just a Panera Thing. Both Burnett and Vennard hope other restaurants start using them, too.

Will carbon footprint scores on menus actually make a difference?

Including a carbon footprint on menus is certainly something that sounds like a good idea, but part of me wondered if it was just a marketing ploy. So I reached out to Kyle Gaan, a research analyst at the Good Food Institute, and Laura Timlin, director of Carbon Trust, two organizations committed to sustainability that were not part of Panera’s new initiative.

“I certainly don’t see any negatives to adding the scores to menus,” Gaan tells me. “Anything that can increase the awareness of what we eat and the effect it has on the environment and climate change is positive.” Still, he wonders how much it will actually change consumers’ food choices. “When we look at various studies on consumer behavior, the first factor that comes in when figuring out what to eat is taste. The second is health, and then environmental concerns or animal welfare concerns are what people think about next.”

Gaan makes a good point: Seeing a gold star (or seal) next to a menu item indicating that it’s a sustainable choice may not be the main driving factor in terms of what most people will order. But he also points out that many of the same foods that are sustainable are also nutrient-rich. “For example, we know that animal products have a high carbon footprint because it requires a lot of land not only for the animals, but also to feed them,” he says. “And at the same time, there’s growing evidence showing that a plant-based lifestyle has many nutritional benefits.”

Timlin, for her part, is into the inclusion on menus. “It’s impactful,” she says. “Sharing carbon footprint information for different meal options helps to build awareness with consumers about the climate change impacts of their choices. For those consumers who want to reduce their carbon footprints, this information will help them to make informed purchasing decisions. We also know that to successfully change behavior, consumers need clear and simple information and businesses have a role to play in providing this.”

But Timlin also says that carbon footprints are not the only factor restaurants and brands should consider in terms of sustainability and social responsibilities. Water use, plastic use, and Fair Trade practices are also important to consider, she says, though they may take more digging than just glancing at the menu.

Will other restaurants follow in Panera’s footsteps?

As Burnett and Vennard shared, their hope isn’t that Panera will remain the only restaurant adding carbon footprint scores to menus; they hope it will become an industry standard. While we’re definitely not there yet, a few other restaurant chains are joining the conversation.

Vennard says that WRI has also worked with Just Salad to calculate the carbon footprint scores of menu items; as of June 2020, that score is included on every salad or bowl it sells. On October 26, Chipotle debuted its “Real Footprint” feature, which shows the environmental impact ingredients have, taking into account greenhouse gas emissions, water use, impact on soil health, organic land supported, and antibiotics used or avoided. (Here’s a Tiktok of Bill Nye the Science Guy explaining how it works.) “Through the Real Foodprint feature, Chipotle hopes conscious consumers will more clearly understand their personal impact on the planet. At the order confirmation screen on the app and [online], guests will receive data on the five metrics,” the brand stated in a press release.

Including carbon footprints on menus certainly isn’t something that’s mainstream yet. But as more chains make an effort to educate consumers about the impact food has on climate change, it’s not such an odd idea that it will become the norm. “Consumers need to signal to brands that they want low carbon alternatives,” Timlin says. “The most effective companies will engage with their customers, listen, learn, and do their utmost to be transparent about their approach to climate change.” It’s progress that can start with a single step—and a single score.

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