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With low-carbon diets, consumers step to the plate

To reduce greenhouse gases, the focus is on the total energy used in food production. Bean burger, anyone?

April 22, 2008|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Not every student in line at the University of Redlands cafeteria was ready for self-sacrifice to save the planet.

"No hamburger patties?" asked an incredulous football player, repeating the words of the grill cook. He glowered at the posted sign: "Cows or cars? Worldwide, livestock emits 18% of greenhouse gases, more than the transportation sector! Today we're offering great-tasting vegetarian choices."

The portabello burger didn't beckon him. Nor the black-bean burger.

"Just give me three chicken breasts, please," he said -- and with that, swaggered off to pile potato wedges onto his heaping plate.

Although this perhaps wasn't the most accepting reaction, it resulted in the desired dietary shift as Bon Appetit Management Co. rolls out its new Low Carbon Diet in 400 cafes it runs at university and corporate campuses around the country. Chicken, it turns out, has a lower carbon footprint than beef.

Conscientious consumers who want to tread lightly are increasingly concerned about their own carbon footprints. They've changed lightbulbs. They covet a Prius more than a Porsche. Now their anxiety over global warming has shifted to the supermarket and dinner table.

The global food and agriculture system produces about one-third of humanity's contribution to greenhouse gases. So questions about food are shifting from the familiar "Is this good for me?" or "Will it make me fat?" to "Is it good for the planet?"

But what's the right thing to do? It's not just paper versus plastic anymore. Is throwing out leftovers better than taking them home in a plastic container? Is refrigerated better than frozen? A French brie sandwich or chicken salad?

Sensing this, the country's major food service companies are talking about energy efficiency, waste reduction and, now, how to reduce carbon emissions associated with the food they serve.

Changing the meaning of "carb" in "low-carb" has been kicking around for years. Those who preach eating local, such as the locavores, have hogged much of the attention with a focus on "food miles," the distance that food travels from farm to fork.

Food science has begun to look beyond transportation, to the smorgasbord of contributors to carbon dioxide and other gases with even greater atmospheric warming potential, such as methane.

Researchers tally emissions related to each of hundreds of steps in the life cycle of various foods, from the energy-intensive process of manufacturing fertilizer for crops to the leftovers scraped from plates that end up rotting in a landfill, burping methane.

As they perfect these life-cycle assessments, scientists are ready to answer the question raised by a cartoon-book character in a Roy Lichtenstein-inspired poster outside the university cafe: "Is my cheeseburger causing global warming?"

Frequent-flier sushi

It was a sparkling spring day at the Getty Center in the Brentwood hills. Instead of heading into the sunshine for their lunch break, museum staffers filed into a darkened auditorium to hear a lecture: "Play With Your Food."

The crowd appeared to be a thoughtful bunch, many of them foodies, and more receptive than a famished football player to weighing the environmental and social consequences of their food choices.

Helene York took the stage with her PowerPoint slides, fulfilling the directive of Fedele Bauccio, Bon Appetit's blunt-talking chief executive: "Customers make choices for us. We need to educate them."

York, who directs the Low Carbon Diet initiative, explains that the diet is to slim down the company's greenhouse gas emissions by 25%, beginning by changing the 80 million meals it serves a year.

"That sounds like a lot," she said. Yet it's nothing compared with what can happen if Bon Appetit persuades its parent company, Compass Group, to follow suit, as it did with the switch to sustainably caught seafood. Compass Group is the largest food-service company in North America, with 8,000 accounts including sports arenas, hospitals and Chicago's public schools. Other food service companies, such as Sodexo (Marriott), are also considering menu changes.

To start, Bon Appetit has targeted those items with the biggest impact. That means reducing the amount of beef and cheese.

"Inherently, beef and lamb are worse than every other form of animal protein," York said. The reason? These ruminants incessantly belch methane gas. She points out that methane has 23 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Vegetarians think they get a free ride, she said. Yet if they nibble on a grilled cheese sandwich, they buy into the same industrialized system, which is fertilizer-intensive. Overuse of fertilizer releases nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, a gas that has 296 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide.

"Does your sushi get more frequent-flier miles than you do?" another poster flashes on the screen. It draws a laugh from the audience -- until York explains that Bon Appetit is phasing out fresh seafood brought in by air freight.

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