Measuring the impact of food ingredients

HowGood is an independent research company with the world’s largest product sustainability database.

We’ve loved working with Chipotle to help them analyze their “Real Foodprint.” Using HowGood’s industry-leading impact modeling methodology, and drawing data from over 450 third-party scientific and peer-reviewed studies, we’ve conducted a sustainability assessment for every ingredient on the Chipotle menu to uncover the true environmental and social impact of every order.

Research Methodology for Chipotle’s Real Foodprint

Setting the Conventional Baseline

HowGood applied our impact modeling system to assess the conventional industry average agricultural impact of each ingredient that Chipotle serves. This step was implemented for each distinct sustainability metric to produce a comprehensive baseline picture of both the environmental and social impacts of every ingredient under conventional industry practices.

Analyzing the Chipotle Impact Differential

We then modeled the change in impact generated by Chipotle’s animal welfare and organic procurement standards and specific sourcing geographies, and subtracted those impacts from the conventional industry average. Transformation losses throughout the food value chain, including growing, processing, transportation, and cooking, were taken into account. 

Less Carbon in the Atmosphere

To derive the amount of CO2e released into the atmosphere from each ingredient, HowGood analyzed any global warming causing greenhouse gas emissions produced as a result of on-farm activities for each ingredient. 

Activity taking place from “farm to gate,” ie from the growing or raising of an ingredient through to its arrival at the packing house, was considered in our calculations. This approach was adopted due to the fact that, while emissions occurring later in the supply chain are significant, they are largely unchanging regardless of the standard or quality of ingredient, and thus would not contribute meaningfully to a calculation of the difference between conventional versus responsibly-grown ingredients. Data came primarily from peer-reviewed LCAs.

Supported Organic Land

To determine the number of square feet of organic land supported by a given meal, HowGood first determined yield numbers using United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and National Agricultural Statistics Services (NASS) averages. Based on the amount of each ingredient that Chipotle sources from organic farms, HowGood determined the total land used to grow each organic crop. Acreage in transition from conventional to organic was calculated at 50%.

Organic agriculture uses less fossil fuel derived fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. As a result, the soil and surrounding biodiversity is improved, along with significant reductions in water eutrophication.

Antibiotics Avoided

Because Chipotle does not source meat with any amount of antibiotics, HowGood calculated the difference in Chipotle versus Conventional protein by finding the average total amounts of prophylactic and subtherapeutic antibiotics used in U.S. conventional animal feed per pound of finished product. All calculations are based on standard industry practice following the FDA’s policy banning medically important drugs from being used for livestock growth promotion. 

Given the importance of feed conversion ratios in these calculations, the inefficiency of conventional beef production has significant influence. 

Water Saved

HowGood’s assessment of each ingredient’s water footprint impact considered the green, blue and gray water needs for each crop. Total water use was driven by variables including a crop’s geographic location, relevant certifications, and growing practices. 

Though green water makes up the majority of water usage, it does not vary largely based on factors other than total land use needs per crop. Thus, most of the variation in impact came from a reduction in gray water: responsibly-grown crops produce less excess nitrogen from chemical fertilizer runoff into surrounding waterways.

Improved Soil Health

HowGood defines soil health as a combination of intact soil structure over time and total macro and micro biodiversity held within the soil. Macro biodiversity includes invertebrates and plant material; micro biodiversity includes bacteria, fungus, and other single-celled organisms. 

Acres with improved soil health are those under agricultural practices that either engage in minimal tillage, and/or use a minimal amount of chemical application that is harmful to micro or macro biodiversity.

Data Sources

HowGood’s research draws on data from over 450 sources and certifications, including peer reviewed studies, third party certifications, scientific research, industry reports, government data, investigative journalism, NGO research, expert opinion, and international regulations. Select top sources include the following:

Bioversity International
Human Rights Watch
Global Animal Partnership
Food & Agriculture Organization
US Food & Drug Administration
Animal Welfare Approved

Water Footprint Network
Int’l Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
EcoInvent LCA Database
Journal of Cleaner Production
National Organic Program
Verite – Fair Labor Worldwide
Agrobiodiversity Index

Roundtable on Responsible Soy
Environmental Working Group
Journal of Industrial Ecology
UTZ Certified
Global Agricultural Trade System
Nat’l Resources Conservation Service

Organic Consumer Association
California Certified Organic Farming
Sustainable Agriculture Network
Non-GMO Product Certified
Fair Trade America / International
Fair For Life

HowGood’s Core Research Principles

When researching sustainability, it’s critical to recognize that food systems are complex, and any given impact measurement cannot be studied in a vacuum. Rather than over-emphasizing a singular metric, like carbon emissions, we look at how the whole system is impacted by a given practice. Sometimes, a positive benefit in one area can cause harmful effects in another. The food system’s inherent interconnectedness can be best accounted for with a holistic lens.

Cutting Edge
We rely on an exhaustive research process to find the data that push the furthest forward in scientific discovery. Our database is fueled by a collection of over 450 peer-reviewed journals, aggregated industry research, watchdog NGO findings, and government publications. While many data sources are quantitative in nature, others are qualitative typologies: both are critical to developing comprehensive, up-to-date analysis.


A foundational principle of our research outputs is to employ a conservative lens with respect to impact: if specific beneficial practices cannot be confirmed or proven for how a given ingredient is grown or processed, we assume ‘worst case scenario’ conditions. We use industry-standard assumptions for every data point unless otherwise specified, and always seek out farm-level data when possible.


We are ardently committed to our data being grounded in real-world application: an unusual aspect of our data scientist team is that they are all growers themselves. We believe that if we process every Life Cycle Assessment or research study through the eyes of a farmer, it will pass the test of real-life agricultural outcomes and stay safely away from unlikely hypotheticals.

Learn more about measuring impact

Check out HowGood’s Innovation Series, an ongoing conversation with leaders in the food and agriculture industry discussing topics like biodiversity and regenerative agriculture.