Plastic plays a considerable role in our everyday lives. From the beverages we drink, to our packaged foods, plastic is used in every way imaginable. The upside is simple, it makes life easier. The downside is that its pervasiveness also has a tendency to impact our environment negatively.
Plastic waste pollutes from pavements to the Pacific. Humankind is often impulsive with innovation. In other words, things are created faster than ways to manage them. A fun fact is that there’s been more plastic manufactured within the first 10 years of this century than the whole of our previous one. Now we produce and throw away over 380 million tons of plastic each year.
That sounds bleak. But it’s not all plastic doom and gloom. There have been and will continue to be countless approaches to reducing plastic waste. Popular approaches include community clean ups, recycling of used-products, reusing products and “upcycling”. These are simple methods everyone can make a part of their daily habits. Yet while those methods tend to imply a necessary mindset shift, science has found another approach altogether.
Scientists from the University of Edinburgh have discovered a way to upcycle plastic waste into vanilla flavoring. This is not a joke. Vanillin is a popular chemical used in the food industry and is often referred to as “imitation vanilla”. In 2018, global demand for the chemical exceeded 37,000 tons. That’s more than the demand for natural vanilla beans. One huge red flag is that 85% of vanillin is synthesized from fossil fuel chemicals. So clearly it isn’t the most eco-friendly of flavors.
The research was published in the scientific journal Green Chemistry and uses engineered E. coli bacteria to convert TA (terephthalic acid) to vanillin. Terephthalic acid and vanillin’s chemical compositions are very comparable and the engineered bacteria only needs to make a few changes to the hydrogens and oxygens that are bonded to the same carbon foundation.
Creating the same conditions for brewing beer, scientists heated a microbial broth to 98.6 fahrenheit for 24 hours. This effectively converted 79% of the TA to vanillin. According to Joanna Sadler, of University of Edinburgh, “This is the first use of a biological system to upcycle plastic waste into a valuable industry chemical and it has very exciting implications for the circular economy.”
It will be exciting to watch how this develops. Who knows, in the future maybe ice cream, yogurt, pastries and many more will be produced from plastic waste. The next steps for the University of Edinburgh research group is to continue modifying the bacteria to improve conversion. My hope is that efforts such as these will inspire more intelligent approaches to global issues.
Each year, the European Commission designates one city as the “Green Capital of Europe” in recognition of their efforts towards sustainability. 2021’s Green Capital is Lahti, Finland, where 99% of the town’s household waste is already repurposed.
To show just how far you can go to reutilize waste to make other things, Lahti brewery Ant Brew has created a line of “Wasted Potential” summer craft brews that all use waste, ranging from fruit pulps to goose poop.
The goose poop won’t actually go into the beer (although the fruit pulp will), but is instead being used in a food-safe way to smoke the malt used to make one of Ant Brew’s waste-inspired beers. That particular stout will help local parks get cleaner by removing goose droppings from the premises.
Also in the lineup is a witbier that is brewed with orange peels from a local market’s juice pressing station, imbued with fruit purees just past their best by date but still great as an ingredient for beer.
Other ingredients that will be used in the Wasted Potential Beers include roadside weeds, wild herbs, and mosses.
While only Finnish folk will be able to drink this beer once it’s released for the summer, the entire world can take a lesson from what Ant Brew and Lahti are doing in the brewing realm.
The biggest takeaway here is that if you really put your mind to it and get creative, virtually any waste can be repurposed to make something unique and useable.
For years, we’ve been getting teasers of what lab-grown meat could look like, with videos and commentary on cell-cultured meatballs, fried chicken, and more promising a future where meat could be made without killing animals.
That future could take a monumental step forward this year, as Memphis Meats, which just changed its name to Upside Foods, announced that it plans to debut a cell-cultured chicken in the USA by the end of 2021.
Upside’s product, called Upside Chicken, is made by taking a sample of chicken cells and placing it in a nutrient-rich environment. The cells have everything they need to grow on their own and develop into chicken meat.
Claims that Upside makes about this chicken is that it could have a massive impact from a sustainability point, and also limits bacterial contamination since the meat is “cultivated in a clean facility from cell to harvest.” The company is also working with the USDA and the FDA to ensure quality standards of production are met.
Similar to a plant-based meat purveyor like Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat, Upside’s goal is to limit the environmental impact of modern meat production. Instead of taking out meat entirely, however, Upside is using a slaughter-free method that makes the exact same chicken we all know and readily consume.
Pending regulatory approval, Upside plans to launch their chicken product by the end of the year, although no official launch date has been confirmed as of yet. Upside has confirmed to Foodbeast, however, that the plan is to debut their cultured meat in restaurants first.
What we do know, however, is that previous studies have shown that at least a third of Americans are open to trying the product, meaning there is a market and a possibility that cultured meat weaves itself into the future of how we produce and eat meat.
We get our food from a whole lot of different places, whether it be grocery stores, ordering from restaurants, or at work.
Turns out that where we get our food from has some correlation to the nutritional quality of those meals, and the ones with the highest quality actually come from schools.
A recently published study from Tufts University that looked at nutrition data patterns found that from 2003-2018, school meal quality rose to the point that they were our most nutritious food source (2018 is the most recent year that national data for this is available).
Just under a fourth (24%) of the meals consumed at schools were of poor nutritional quality by 2018. In order from lowest to highest percentage of badly balanced meals, the next best food sources were grocery stores (45%), entertainment venues/food trucks (52%), and restaurants (80%).
It should be noted that the above numbers were in terms of meals served to kids. For adults, meals consumed at schools were not evaluated, but the most nutritious food source was grocery stores (33%), followed by food trucks/entertainment (45%), work sites (51%), and restaurants (65%).
A press release from Tufts University attributed the high quality of school meals to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which created new standards for school and early child care nutrition. The policy contributed to a 33% drop in proportion of poor quality meals served at schools over the last 13 years.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act also resulted in highly equitable changes across the board, with the nutritional improvements coming from school meals being on par across ethnicity, education, and household income.
The biggest health challenge today is unequal access to nutrition. 2 billion people aren’t getting enough nutrients to reach their full potential to fight disease.The problem is “hidden hunger” a chronic lack of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients only whole foods can deliver pic.twitter.com/eL2TaQKnHi
In contrast, other food sources had “significant disparities” when it came to improvements in quality across these different demographics.
While it’s great that we know where the most nutritious food can come from, it should be noted that just nine percent of all calories consumed by children in that time period came from schools. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging on, it’s likely that number has even been lower in more recent years.
The study overall found that across the United States, all major food sources could improve on the nutritional quality of their meals, and special attention needs to be given to the equity of how the food is bettered.
The United States currently requires foods that contain eight different major allergens to be labeled with a warning for those who may react to them. These include tree nuts, peanuts, soy, wheat, milk/dairy, fish, shellfish, and eggs.
Soon, the country will also be adding sesame, the ninth most allergenic food source in the United States, as the ninth major allergen to require those warnings.
Sesame’s updated status comes with passage of the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act in the U.S. House of Representatives on April 14th. The Senate already passed the bill back in March, meaning it now heads to President Biden’s desk. According to Allergic Living, the President is expected to sign the legislation into law.
The USA is not the first country to add sesame as an allergen, as the EU, Australia/New Zealand, and several other countries already do so. However, this represents a major step forward in getting more awareness around these lesser known food allergens and making sure consumers are aware if a product contains something they could react to.
As part of the FASTER Act legislation, the FDA will also begin developing and implementing a risk-based model for establishing other food allergens that may also be labeled in the future. Some of the other common food sources this might pertain to in the future would be celery, mustard, or sulfites.
The Secretary of Health and Human Service has 18 months to work on this, as well as reporting on potential therapeutics that could treat allergens and ways to help prevent their onset.
Congress’s passing of the FASTER Act marks some of the biggest food safety legislation enacted since 2011, when President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) into law.
A couple of years ago on Reddit, someone decided to ask how much energy it would take to cook a chicken by slapping it. The internet, of course, responded as best it could, with answers saying how fast you would need to slap it (over 3,700 miles per hour) or how many times total (over 23,000 times).
Of course, this was all just theoretical until recently, when science YouTuber Louis Weisz did the unthinkable and cooked a whole chicken and steak purely through the power of slapping.
Weisz accomplished this culinary feat through some science and robotic ingenuity, putting together a piston, a cutting board for slapping, and some aerogel for insulation. This kept all of the heat generated by slapping the meat inside of the food, meaning that it wouldn’t get lost and the entire thing would cook.
It took a few attempts, but Weisz managed to get a steak up to a perfect medium rare (about 60 degrees Celsius) and keep a whole chicken at 55-58 degrees Celsius long enough to kill any bacteria and render the meat cooked. While he didn’t eat the chicken (one of the protective bags broke into the meat), the steak was tasty, even though the texture was a little off from all of the slapping.
Weisz wouldn’t recommend trying this at home, however, since the energy needed to cause all of that slapping is a lot more than what your oven would use to cook the same chicken. Nonetheless, the world of culinary science has solved another puzzle bequeathed to it by the internet.
The plant-based meat wave is no longer just that and truly the green movement is here to stay, with the ebbs and flows of the notion mellowing out as a dietary constant. The popularity and mainstream appeal of Impossible and Beyond Meat are the banners for this declaration, with more plant-based innovations on the way. One of which happens to be a game changer courtesy of Juicy Marbles: plant-based filet mignon.
Co-founders of Juicy Marbles, Tilen Travnik, Luka Sincek and Maj Hrovat, managed to create a plant-based cut of filet mignon without any use of 3D printing, GMOs or laboratory alterations. The secret lies in how Juicy Marbles was able to use soy protein to mimic the muscle texture and marbling of real meat by arranging and layering the protein fibers from the bottom up using a patent-pending machine they call the Meat-o-matic Reverse Grinder™ 9000. Playful name aside, the reality of this applied technique is groundbreaking.
“The biggest challenge was getting the right fiber alignment and intramuscular fat structure – the marbling. The most expensive steaks in the world are known for their lush marbling. It takes a lot of energy and a rare breed of cow to attain that. With plant meat, we control it and, thus, over time, can scale up our steak production and bring down the price. Eventually, we’ll be able to make the most premium meats attainable for everyone,” explains Luka Sincek.
So thanks to Juicy Marbles, the world’s first plant-based steaks can be purchased on their website and ship to the 48 states and throughout Europe for a limited time only.
According to the Juicy Marbles website the cuts of meat have a firm texture “while the linear fibre placement results in juicy chunks tearing away softly, like real muscle.”
With the possibility of actual plant-based cuts of meat being available directly to consumers, it will only be a matter of time before the flood gates open for other proteins to get a fully plant-based treatment in the form of individual cuts of meat that have an uncanny resemblance to the real thing.
One of the biggest things that has to change for the world to be able to feed 9 billion people by 2050 is our food systems. Many produce food at unsustainable rates that don’t give back to the environment or allow things to regrow and populations to recover.
While eating in such a climate-friendly way is oftentimes expensive, many fast food chains are contributing to the cause by altering how they source their food, plastics, and energy. It’s a key step in helping change our food systems, since chains affect massive swaths of the food supply while feeding millions of people.
Sure, fast food isn’t what you would think of as completely “climate-friendly,” but many chains have made some big efforts in making their systems more sustainable. The ten chains on this list have done the most in that regard compared to other fast food giants.
When looking at what chains would make this list, we looked at the efforts they’ve made in providing sustainable food options, reducing waste and plastic usage, and overall conservation efforts for energy, water, and other resources needed to run a restaurant empire. Any support given to farming and conservation efforts that aim to make the food chain sustainable are also a big plus.
“Clean label” was not a factor considered, although many may link it to a chain that’s more environmentally friendly. “Clean label” has more to do with ingredients than it does with sustainability, and not all “clean label” chains make equitable efforts when it comes to the environment. If they do, however, chances are they’ll show up on here!
White Castle was one of the first major fast food chains to add any plant-based meat alternatives, incorporating Impossible Foods into their arsenal in 2018. That’s not the only change they’ve been making to their food, however: they ensure that their fish is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as sustainable, they recycle some of their cooking oil for biodiesel fuel, and use post-consumer recyclables to make their packaging. This includes items like the Crave Cases, which are made using recyclable materials.
The OG burger chain also has a commitment to drop their emissions by at least one percent every year. While they’re not posting regular reports about their sustainability efforts, they are transparent about the steps they are taking to improve their food system, and have a couple of sustainable meal options.
Taco Bell makes it onto the bottom part of this list for a couple of reasons: they have a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan options for those looking to avoid more meat (a climate resource-heavy protein), and they commit to using sustainable palm oil in their food. Most of their packaging is also recyclable, reusable, or compostable, and all of it will be by 2025.
On that alone, they probably would have not made this list. However, their earlier announcement that they were beginning to test Beyond Meat products in 2021 means that one of the world’s largest fast food giants is making a serious effort to look at alternatives to ground beef, and that deserves inclusion for the impact this 7,000-plus location giant can have on the industry.
While Subway often doesn’t make the conversation as a ground-breaking chain, they do have a lot of efforts in place when it comes to being climate-friendly. They’ve developed ECO restaurants, use packaging that’s all recyclable or compostable, and have begun piloting energy conservation and food composting/waste diversion programs.
The sandwich empire also sources ingredients from suppliers that practice environmental stewardship and eco-friendly farming, according to their website. A lot of this is dependent on different franchisees taking these steps themselves, although it is being fostered into the larger company culture.
When it comes to packaging and sourcing, Starbucks is definitely a global leader in being climate-friendly. They’ve already taken plastic straws out of their restaurants, made their cups recyclable, and are striving to halve their emission, waste, and water usage by 2030.
The coffee titan also sources 99% of its coffee through “ethical practices,” although it should be noted that these are internal ethical standards, and have been shown to be weaker in practice than they are on paper, especially when it comes to establishing minimum coffee prices and preventing slave labor. They are one of the largest purchasers of externally certified “Fair Trade” coffee, to be fair, but they are also the world’s biggest coffee company. That should be expected.
Starbucks has also dipped its toes into the plant-based meat game, introducing an Impossible Breakfast Sandwich to their menu. They’re also looking at bringing oat milk nationwide, and already have soy and almond milk as dairy-free alternatives.
This is the first chain on this list that doesn’t have a dedicated plant-based meat offering either available or in the works, though their vegetarian Shroom Shack should not be slept on. However, Shake Shack does have an extensive animal welfare program set up that their suppliers follow, and have committed to updating their progress annually via third-party audits.
Shake Shack also goes a step above other spots by using biodegradable straws and cups (for beers and shakes), building their locations with eco-friendly materials, and using sustainable power options like wind and renewable energy. They also invest in composting and recycling cooking oil to be used for biodiesel fuel.
As the Shake Shack empire continues to grow, so will their mission of spreading climate-friendly food, environments, and structures. If they had some true plant-based alternatives to their burgers, they would definitely be higher on this list.
People normally don’t think about IKEA as a food chain. Between its wide spread of cafes and food courts, however, it classifies as the world’s sixth largest, an astounding number.
While they’re known for cheap prices and accessibility, IKEA also is taking massive steps forward when it comes to being climate-friendly. Here we’re just focusing on the food aspect, which is still pretty big: they’ve launched plant-based and salmon meatballs as more sustainable alternatives to their traditional and iconic beef version.
IKEA also has ambitious plans to improve their entire food supply chain by 2030. This includes reducing food waste, sourcing from sustainable sources, making healthier food, and promoting animal welfare. The first of their programs from this “Better Food Programme,” focused on chicken, launched in 2018.
Having one of the world’s largest food chains making such huge commitments is amazing. As those commitments are reached, it will almost certainly climb up on this list to compare with those who have taken huge steps already.
Surprised? So were we, to be honest. Jimmy John’s and its 2,000 locations do a lot of amazing environmental work behind the scenes, but are public about the commitments they make on their site. This includes listing their suppliers on their website, as well as talking about the environmental commitments each of those suppliers have made.
Jimmy John’s also has their own commitments that they practice, which includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030. They also support improved environmental practices for raising meat on over 2 million acres of land, and target suppliers that use recyclable materials, energy, water, or all of the above.
The sandwich chain also uses plenty of recyclable materials in its packaging. All of these are practices that have been in place since the company started in 1983, according to the website, so it’s deeply embedded in the company’s culture. They may not have plant-based meat offerings, but as sandwich chains go, these guys are doing great on the climate-friendly front.
When we talk about fast food giants taking huge steps to be more climate-friendly, none have taken bigger and further steps than McDonald’s. Across all fronts, they are working to improve their food system, from sustainable agriculture to recycling and energy conservation.
For their food, they’ve switched over their Filet-o-Fish sandwiches to all be Marine Stewardship Council certified for sustainability. They’ve been growing their lineup of ranchers to be more sustainable, use 100% sustainable espresso beans for their coffee, and follow United Nations guidelines when it comes to evaluating and implementing research in those fields. They’ve also tested many plant-based meat options globally, and we could finally see one hit US stores nationwide soon in the “McPlant” lineup.
McDonald’s is also one of two fast food titans that have joined the NextGen Cup challenge to find a renewable solution for one of their largest pieces of waste (Starbucks has also joined). They also have extensive commitments and goals to minimize water, plastic, and energy usage, all of which can be viewed and evaluated on their corporate website.
One of the chain’s biggest accomplishments in the climate-friendly space is creating a “Net Zero Energy” restaurant, which opened in 2020 at Disney World. It creates enough renewable energy to cover 100% of its needs annually, and is being used as a research hub to test solutions for locations nationwide to reduce energy and water use. These include photovoltaic panels, solar-powered lights, and even bikes that generate electricity.
The fish taco specialist is one of the top chains in the world when it comes to sustainability. This is because nearly every option on its menu is already meeting, or close to meeting, goals when it comes to being climate-friendly.
Just about every seafood option on Rubio’s menu is certified as “Responsibly Managed” according to a third-party certification from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the company displays as such on their website. This includes limited-time offerings like Langostino Lobster, an impressive feat. The only seafood to not be on that list is mahi mahi, and Rubio’s suppliers are working now to reach that certification.
Rubio’s also emphasizes local sourcing for its other ingredients, like tortillas, and even has plant-based options from Impossible Foods on its menu.
On top of its ingredient sourcing, Rubio’s also uses compostable and biodegradable takeout containers and napkins, meaning that its primary uses of packaging can go back into the earth and be reused. It also obtains third party certifications for its cups and paper menus to ensure they are recyclable as well, a huge plus.
Rubio’s gets close to the top for all of the remarkable efforts this chain is making, which are arguably the most of any restaurant empire on this list. Despite all of these efforts and transparency, however, there is one company that does more.
In the world of climate-friendly and sustainable food efforts, no chain is more thorough and transparent than Chipotle. They’re not just looking at the overall climate footprint picture, they have a tracker that shows how much environmental impact is reduced in each digital order. They’ve also begun to release annual climate reports that don’t just show targeted metrics: they’re transparent about whether those goals have been currently met, exceeded, or if they’re still behind on them.
Chipotle has plant-based options that have long been on the menu, like Sofritas or their veggie bowl option. However, they’re also willing to remove options if they’re not up to par, like when Carnitas was temporarily taken off the menu after it was discovered that some pork suppliers had animal welfare problems.
In terms of waste, the chain also goes above and beyond there. They have a program that donates used equipment and furniture (ie. grills and food processors) to local schools and nonprofits, and even has a Harvest Program that generates meals from leftovers that get donated to local communities. It also has set up composting in close to a fifth of its restaurants.
Overall, Chipotle is the most climate-friendly fast food chain out there because it is taking the most steps to improve environmentally andis also the most transparent and open about it. They openly market environmental sustainability to the point where you can track it online orders, promoting a future of food that is better for the environment and the planet. What other major fast food players can say that?