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Panera Bread and Aramark are acting on research showing that the carbon footprint of what you eat can make a difference to the environment. This could be the start of something big.

According to Pew Research, six in 10 Americans say they have seen impacts from climate change in their own communities but don’t know how to help. And a report from the United Nations found that the global food system accounts for 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Each day, more consumers are hearing that what you eat can make a difference.


Panera Bread and Aramark, for starters, are doing something about it that you just might want to look at very closely. To make it easier for guests to understand the climate impact of their meals, Panera has partnered with the World Resources Institute (WRI) to measure the carbon footprint of its menu items and then label its low-carbon entrees. (Check out the logo on this page, and eatcoolfood.org)

The goal in coming up with a badge proclaiming an entree a “Cool Food Meal” is to raise awareness about the link between food and greenhouse gas emissions and give customers the ability to make an informed decision. It lets them know that grains, fruits, and vegetables are at the lower end of the scale while dairy products and meat are at the higher end.

The WRI quantifies a maximum recommended daily carbon budget for an individual’s diet, which aligns with globally recognized goals to curb climate change. The carbon budget is split across three daily meals plus snacks. Breakfast must be no more than 20% of the recommended daily carbon footprint of a person’s diet, and a lunch or dinner must be less than 30% each. If the meal is below the threshold and it meets a nutritional guardrail, it is certified as a low-carbon Cool Food meal. This equates to no more than 3.81 kg CO₂e for breakfast and 5.71 kg CO₂e for lunch or dinner. Every Low-Carbon Certified Meal has emissions 38% lower than the average regional meal, ensuring it aligns with these allowances.

Low-carbon meals tend to feature lots of grains, le-gumes, fruits and veggies and have lower levels of saturated fat and sodium — similar to a classic Mediterranean diet — but some also include modest, savory portions of lower-impact proteins, like poultry, eggs and dairy, Panera says. It’s planning on adding more Cool Food menu items and working with WRI on raising awareness of this in the food industry.

In general, plant-based foods have a lower impact on the environment than meals with meat and dairy ingredients. According to Panera, if, each year, every person in the country swapped 10 quarter-pound burgers with fries for 10 Chipotle Chicken Avocado Melt sandwiches with chips, given the climate impacts of those items, it would reduce carbon emissions by 77 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. This change equates to taking more than 16 million passenger vehicles off the road for one year.

Panera is not the only food company that has taken on this challenge. Starbucks says it is striving to become “resource positive.” And Philadelphia-based Aramark, the largest U.S.-based foodservice provider, has added 350 Cool Food Meals on its menus as part of a 10-university pilot in residential dining rooms beginning this spring. Some examples of Aramark dishes that will be labeled as a Cool Food Meal include Mediterranean Falafel Plate, Five Spice Sesame Tofu Salad Bowl, Shawarma Chicken Ciabatta, and Spinach Artichoke Panini.

Participants include Arizona State University, Florida State University, Slippery Rock University, St. Bonaventure University, the University of California Irvine, the University of Mississippi, the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the University of Virginia, and Western Washington University.

“Reducing Aramark’s impact on the planet is a critical priority. Our own research has shown that 60% of consumers want to reduce their meat intake. Our 350 Cool Food Meals recipes use less beef and lamb, so we are meeting our guests’ desires, as well as making these items climate-friendly,” says Jack Donovan, president and CEO of Aramark’s higher education business.

“Young people are some of the loudest voices calling for climate action,” said Edwina Hughes, head of Cool Food at World Resources Institute. “Students, faculty, and staff will now have an easy way to put their climate ambitions into action – whether that’s lunch after class, at a football game, or picking up late night food. This is about helping people make climate action a simple and core part of their lifestyle.”

What’s interesting is that WRI is not saying that CPG companies and retailers need to stop selling meat and dairy products and carry only plant-based foods.  A Cool Food Meal would tend to just feature more grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables and have a lower level of saturated fat and sodium, much like a Mediterranean diet, but at the same time include a modest, savory portion of lower-impact proteins, like poultry, eggs and dairy.

Even countries in the EU are looking at cutting back on cattle, pork and chicken production in hopes of reducing emissions as well as damage to water supplies from animal waste. Increasingly, we’re learning that climate change is about more than just automobile and manufacturing emissions. All in all, I like this move, and am a bit surprised that Whole Foods and others have not gotten on board. With restaurants highlighting this on their menus I think this will become more popular as time goes on, just like the addition of other important information such as calories, salt, sugar, gluten and more.


This is truly a win-win. You can do your part to help the climate at every meal while eating healthier at the same time. With more and more people under the age of 30 looking at what they eat and wanting to eat healthier, this new callout will make meal choices easier. And that means a growing opportunity for you. n

Bob Anderson is the retired vp/gmm at Walmart, where he worked for 17 years. He can be reached at bob.sue@sbcglobal.net.

Bob Anderson

Bob Anderson

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