Opinion | Can climate-friendly labels change the way we eat? Maybe. But let me eat my non-climate-friendly brownie first.

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In October 2020, Panera Bread added carbon emissions data to its menu. I was so intrigued that I immediately went to Panera’s website to check out how much my favorite Panera Bread combo (tuna salad sandwich and a brownie) would cost Mother Earth. As I hunted for the climate labels on the menu, my mouse guided itself to the ‘order now’ button because I started drooling over the glossy, fudgy brownie with powdered sugar icing. The next thing I knew, the Panera order was on its way to my doorstep.

I guess my stomach had given in to Panera before my brain could wade through all the fine print in the “Technical Note” to make a rational decision — once again, my craving won.

As I sat down to recover from the sugar rush, I drilled into the “Technical Note” to feed my inner nerdiness. Panera tracks greenhouse gas (GHG) production in its dishes’ supply chains, and if a dish has a carbon footprint that meets an established per-meal GHG threshold according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), it gets a “Cool Food Meal” label. Interested customers can click on the “Technical Note” to learn more about the details.

But nobody clicks on the “Technical Note” — just like how nobody ever gets to the second page of Google results. We all have limited mental capacity for decision-making these days, especially when our stomachs are growling at us in the middle of a work day. That’s exactly why Panera uses the label “Cool Food Meal” to make it more accessible and intuitive for consumers to make the ‘cooler’ choice.

Intuitive labeling may be an easier and faster way for us to feel good about what we purchase, but it doesn’t really tell us the whole story, because the story is more complicated than just the numbers.

There is no single source of truth when it comes to climate-friendly labeling. Conscientious consumers like me have been demanding standardized carbon footprint data so we can compare choices and make decisions aligned with our values. But I’ve learned through my graduate study in environmental science that it is challenging — and virtually impossible — to arrive at accurate CO2 emissions data from production to consumption. Here’s why.

There are many variables (e.g. farming practices and use of agricultural products) that can affect a product’s carbon footprint, and most of them currently don’t have primary data at the farm level. Most existing databases are at the global or country level. Additionally, there is no consensus around what a meaningful metric is (e.g. is it carbon per meal or per calorie?).

In a sense, doing carbon accounting for food is like racing in the Olympics without rules — it’s an honor system. And it is even more confusing for spectators to tell who is winning.

Nonetheless, it is exciting to see Panera set the precedent for carbon labeling. The food industry as a whole needs to standardize accounting methods and increase access to primary data; as we improve the legitimacy of carbon accounting, these labels will empower consumers to “do good” rather than just “feel good.”

If you are an eco-geek like me, you will be delighted to know that innovations in the space of carbon footprint and life cycle analysis are happening now. Assessment tools such as COMET (developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) are working to improve data transparency; climate startups such as Planet FWD are building database platforms to reduce the barriers for consumer brands to source climate-friendly ingredients. Eco-conscious consumers can then use the information to “do good” by making climate-friendly purchasing decisions.

But until the labels can become an objective and reliable source of reference, here are some general rules of thumb. According to the EAT-Lancet report, plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts have a much smaller carbon footprint than animal source foods and added sugar. So if we want to lower the carbon footprints in our diets, we should prioritize plant-based foods over animal source foods, and reduce the intake of refined grains and highly processed foods.

I am hopeful that we will be able to tell a better story in the near future with the climate-friendly labels — and perhaps my optimism is partially driven by the lingering sugar high from the Panera brownie.

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