Foto: Insider

Alexis Frost didn’t expect her Chipotle hack to make millions of stomachs rumble.

The TikTok creator, known for reviewing fast-food staples, posted last summer about leveling up Chipotle’s steak quesadilla with fajita veggies. The veggies weren’t a standard add-on. Those, plus extra cheese, created something like a Philly cheesesteak, Frost said. The internet loved it.

Another well-known TikToker, Keith Lee, in December stitched together his own review with a twist: a side of Chipotle Honey vinaigrette mixed with sour cream.

The TikTokers’ hacks were so hot that some Chipotle locations put up signs banning the concoctions; the special orders created too many headaches for workers. But after the TikToks drew more than 30 million views and tens of thousands of comments, Chipotle relented: In March, the chain added the Fajita Quesadilla to its online menu and its app.

The cultlike following that Chipotle and other chains have — Taco Bell even inspires weddings — is a reminder that perhaps nothing is more American than fast food. And that culture gets exported around the world as other countries adopt a more Western diet.

@alexis.frost @alexis.frost this has been one of my faves ever since it was suggested . #mrsfrost #chipotle #quesadilla #foodie #foodtok #fastfood ♬ mario sound – mandycap

Our devotion to burgers and burritos creates a major dilemma for chains that have pledged to reduce their climate impact: Trimming some of the meat from the menu risks angering customers, but failing to do so puts the planet at risk.

For the big chains, there appear to be few ways to hold off ravenous fans. Nathan Llorin, another popular TikToker, told Insider that it wasn’t until he started eating and reviewing fast food that his videos took off.

In January, Llorin racked up 7 million views comparing burgers from McDonald’s, Burger King, and other chains. Videos with the hashtag #fastfood on TikTok have a combined 14.3 billion views.

“People like seeing creators try foods that everyone has access to. It helps them relate,” he said.

All of that access carries a price far greater than what’s on the dollar menu. The agriculture industry accounts for a third of global greenhouse-gas emissions, with cattle being a top contributor, according to United Nations’ research. Cow burps and manure emit methane, a potent gas that doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, but that packs up to 80 times the warming power.

This makes reducing methane emissions one of the fastest ways to slow global warming. Beef production also requires a lot more land than other proteins, including chicken, pork, and beans, making it the leading driver of deforestation in countries such as Brazil.

Shaping tastes and the market

Given the fast-food industry’s purchasing power and sway with customers, it could do a lot more to encourage the shift toward sustainable diets, Anne Bordier, the director of sustainable diets at the World Resources Institute, an environmental nonprofit, said.

More than one-third of US adults and children eat fast food on a given day, and McDonald’s alone, with its nearly 40,000 locations in 119 countries, is one of the biggest buyers of beef in the world.

The big thing for us is offering choice, because we don’t want to force consumers into an area that they don’t want to go to.

Many of the largest chains, including McDonald’s, have pledged to reduce emissions per metric ton of the food they buy and to eliminate deforestation in supply chains. None have explicitly committed to buying less beef, however, and pilots to steer customers toward plant-based meals have been small in scale and have shown lackluster results. McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Chipotle are focused on working with farmers to help lower their carbon footprints, according to their sustainability reports and interviews with several executives.

“The big thing for us is offering choice, because we don’t want to force consumers into an area that they don’t want to go to,” Missy Schaaphok, the director of global nutrition and sustainability for Taco Bell, told Insider. “What’s important is making sure they have the information.”

Schaaphok noted that Taco Bell’s vegetarian offerings make up 12% of its sales, and the chain last year tested two plant-based alternatives, one that imitated steak and another that mimicked seasoned beef. The company is still assessing the results, but many consumers are already shifting from beef to more chicken and plant-based proteins, Schaaphok said.

She added that Taco Bell leads the work of its parent company, Yum Brands, to reduce emissions in the beef-supply chain, and that climate-related pilots are in the works.

McDonald’s referred Insider to a 2021 statement from the company’s chief sustainability officer in which she said beef consumption will continue to be part of consumers’ diets. A Burger King spokesperson said in a statement that the chain is focused on serving customers what they want, like flame-grilled beef. Both McDonald’s and Burger King cited their work with franchisees and farmers to reduce emissions.

3 burgers a week 

While working with farmers is an essential climate solution, research indicates it likely isn’t enough to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels — a threshold that climate scientists have said is essential to avoiding a catastrophic fallout. The world population is growing, and, with it, a need for food, necessitating a faster shift to more sustainable diets. Demand for animal-based products is expected to spike by nearly 70% by midcentury, especially as people in developing countries earn higher incomes.

But developing countries aren’t the target for cutting back on beef, Bordier said. The focus should be on people in wealthy Western nations who are overconsuming.

“We’ve calculated that by 2050, in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, per-capita beef consumption should be about 50 calories per day,” Bordier told Insider. “That’s about a burger-and-a-half a week. In the US, the average is about three burgers a week and in Europe it’s two. So we’ve got a ways to go.”

All this consumption is the reason beef is a big industry. In the US, there are some 738,000 beef-cattle-production businesses, according to the market-research firm IBIS World.

For decades, health experts have warned about the health risks of scarfing down too much fast food and red meat, though the connection of that largesse to the climate is less ingrained in the American psyche.

There are some 738,000 beef-cattle-production businesses in the US. Pictured: A traditional beef-cattle farm in Texas. Foto: Bim/Getty Images

Bordier is trying to change that through her work on WRI’s Cool Food program, which is helping 63 restaurants, food-service companies, cities, and universities shift toward more plant-based meals. When a group of 30 early adopters reduced their combined beef-and-lamb purchases in 2021, emissions per plate fell by 20% compared to a baseline year.

The program also created climate messaging that can help boost sales. Bordier said using words like “vegan” or “vegetarian” turns some people off, so it’s better to mention taste or how small changes can make a big impact.

A climate message for menus

In January, research showed that labeling fast-food menus with their climate impacts swayed people away from red meat. The online study, which the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health led, asked about 5,000 people to choose a single item for dinner from fast-food menus. One group got a menu that labeled chicken, fish, or vegetarian meals as having a “low climate impact.” Another group got a menu with red meat labeled as having a “high climate impact.” Both labels led to fewer red-meat selections compared to a control group.

Julia Wolfson, a coauthor of the study, told Insider that the results were encouraging, but said that more research is needed on effective climate messaging and what’s feasible for restaurants.

Few fast-food chains are going the way of climate labels. Panera Bread in 2020 became the first US chain to introduce climate labels when it put “Cool Food Meal” badges on items with low-carbon footprints through its work with WRI.

“We believe our responsibility is to help drive change not by telling guests what to eat, but rather through offering the information needed to make lower-carbon choices that are chef-crafted and delicious,” Sara Burnett, Panera’s vice president of food beliefs, sustainability, and PR, said in an emailed statement.

Burnett added that more than 57% of Panera’s menu fell into the Cool Food category in 2022, up from 55% the year before. Fan favorites like its Broccoli Cheddar soup and Chipotle Chicken Avocado Melt qualify. Panera is analyzing whether the labels led to more sales last year.

Very rarely do I see anything about environmental impact. It’s more just like, ‘You’re going to get fat. You’re going to die of diabetes.’

Panera, which has about 2,000 stores in the US and Canada, aims to be “climate positive” by 2050; meaning it would remove more emissions from the atmosphere than it emits. Burnett said Panera is using more lower-emissions ingredients and working with suppliers that are reducing food waste and adopting sustainable agricultural practices.

Chipotle in 2020 unveiled a climate-impact tracker for digital orders. The purpose of the program, Real Foodprint, is to show customers how the ingredients Chipotle buys are better for the environment than those produced via conventional agriculture. Chipotle rewards members also get emails about their footprint over time.

Laurie Schalow, Chipotle’s chief corporate-affairs and food-safety officer, told Insider that Real Foodprint doesn’t offer specific insights into whether customers are changing their orders as a result of the program. But about 10% of customers now choose a meatless option, including Sofritas, the chain’s plant-based mainstay made from tofu.

Chipotle chose not to set a goal for net-zero emissions but is trying to cut them in half by 2030, in part because there isn’t a clear pathway to the former, Schalow said.

She said rather focusing on buying less meat, Chipotle is encouraging customers to try alternatives and is working within the food-supply chain to reduce environmental impacts.

Working with influencers might also help.

Frost, the TikToker, told Insider that of all the things viewers attack her for on the platform, the environmental impact of fast food isn’t among them.

“Very rarely do I see anything about environmental impact. It’s more just like, ‘You’re going to get fat. You’re going to die of diabetes,'” Frost said.

The mom of two teens is open to featuring more plant-based foods in her content, though she also believes people should be free to choose what they eat.

“I don’t want my kids to think, ‘You have to eat this,’ or, ‘You can’t have that,'” she said. “Everything, in moderation, is OK.”

This article is part of “The Great Transition,” a series covering the lofty changes across industries that are leading to a more sustainable future. For more climate-action news, visit Insider’s One Planet hub.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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