Will Carbon Join Calories on the Menu Board?
Just Salad is working to add carbon labeling to its menu items.
It took a long time to get calories on the menu, but when they arrived, consumers actually started eating fewer calories.
In research from Cornell University and Louisiana State University, consumers ate about 45 fewer calories a meal where calories were listed. That’s nothing groundbreaking, but accounts to 3 to 5 pounds a year of reduced caloric intake.
Restaurants looking to help in the fight against climate change hope there is a similar difference by putting the carbon cost of menu items on the menu as well. And it might account for a lot more impact than calorie calculations.
In an April survey about climate change sentiment carried out by Yale University, two thirds of respondents are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming and 26 percent are “very worried.” Even as COVID-19 devoured a lot of mental energy, worries about climate change remained top of mind. One big difference in how consumers see climate change compared to their diet: 40 percent of respondents felt “helpless” to actually change the course of the climate and 66 percent said they felt a responsibility to help reduce the impact.
But as Sandra Noonan, chief sustainability officer at Just Salad, said, consumers do have a lot of power to effect change by changing their diet.
“The fact is that food production accounts for 26 percent of global carbon emissions. There is an this incredible piece of research that says in the U.S., dietary change has the potential to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Noonan. “Dietary change can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food by 73 percent.”
That’s why the company is working toward carbon labeling, to give diners a way to make a difference through “climatarianism.” The goal is to have chef-designed salads quantified by Climate Week in September. Noonan said she wants to give consumers the numbers, that’s step one, but also the explanation of what they mean and some context and comparison.
"The explanation that we’ll have to get their heads around is what it is. If you see the pictures, it says 0.8kg of CO2 equivalent. What that is saying, this portion of food—lettuce, cheese and tomato—the production of each item in the salad was all linked to this much carbon dioxide emissions,” said Noonan. “The process of growing your tomato emitted X and we total that all together.”
Step three is putting that into context. If you ask even a climatarian how much carbon they should be contributing in their daily meals, you’ll probably get a blank stare. Most people who decide their dinner with the climate in mind simply cut out animal protein as it’s a large contributor to carbon emissions. But Noonan said indexing that to a common food item helps make sense of the menu number.
“What we did in an infographic, we compare it to an index food. The index food we took was a quarter pound beef patty because that’s a very well calculated and robustly calculated food item. And the carbon emissions from that is 4 kilograms,” said Noonan. “You really get a perspective and the final piece of context shows that on average, 4.7k C02 equivalent is what the average American daily diet is.”
Calculating all that was no simple task, she said there were some surprises along the way, namely just how impactful dairy can be.
“We were surprised by a few things. We calculated carbon footprint of a few different salads and we ranked everything,” said Noonan. “It’s interesting to see that the presence of cheese can really swing a menu item. If you want to be ultra-low carbon, ask for no cheese or vegan cheese.”
She said dressings were another surprise given that it’s such a small amount of actual food. But when including dressings in the calculation, things like yogurt-based dressings drove the carbon footprint much higher.
That calculation is especially tricky given the complex restaurant supply chain and the endless variations at the farm to the restaurant and storage between. Noonan said the company collaborated with New York University for some dedicated (and cost-effective) help.
“We had a team of MBA consultants that were devoted to this project and we continue to have student assistance,” said Noonan. “That was a great way to help us pool the academic research and then contact academics in the field.”
She said ultimately the restaurant industry needs to continue this conversation and to really scale—there needs to be a standardizing organization for carbon just like there is for calories. But that conversation is just getting started and consumers are just learning that they have a lot more power over their carbon from food than they thought.
“Basically, half of Americans feel helpless to do anything for climate change, but food is the most powerful lever for consumers to alter the course of climate change,” said Noonan. “Consumers have enormous power, they just might not realize how much power they have in those three daily meals.”