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Shaking up fast food: FootPrint-backed Zero Acre Farms brings its sustainable oil to Shake Shack

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

shake shack outside at night
Image Credit: Subhaan Saleem // Unsplash
  • Kicking off New York City Climate Week, FootPrint Coalition-backed startup, Zero Acre Farms, is partnering with the national fast casual food chain, Shake Shack to pilot its sustainable cooking oil in two Big Apple locations.

  • Whether it be vegetable, canola, soybean, or palm oil, traditional cooking oil has an oily dilemma, associated with everything from deforestation and unsustainable land use to water pollution and displacement of small farmers.

  • Zero Acre takes a different approach, using fermented sugar cane that when compared to Shake Shack's traditional soybean oil, uses 89% less land, consumes 83% less water, and emits 86% less CO2. That's a lot of climate benefits.

  • In addition to being better for the planet, it also makes the chain's food healthier. The pilot will run at least through October at locations in Hudson Yards and Battery Park.

The question of the best burger chain in the United States is one that has pitted the East Coast and the West Coast against each other for decades, but now one may have one that the others don’t: a more sustainable alternative to traditional cooking oils.

Food is often thought about when looking at the impact what you eat has on the planet, but one overshadowed aspect is the impact of what’s used to cook the food: oil. And like the oil and gas industry, cooking oil has its fair share of emissions, water and other resource use, and of course, clear-cutting of forests to harvest the oil.

As reported by Mongabay, last year, deforestation in Sumatra, aka the “orangutan capital” of the world reached an all-time high due to palm oil, much of which was pumped into the global supply chain of major brands like Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever, and many others.

While palm oil is one of the most used, others like vegetable, soy, and sunflower have their fair share of associated greenhouse gas emissions, required land area, and water consumption.

That’s why the FootPrint Coalition portfolio company, Zero Acre Farms creates a more environmentally friendly cooking oil starting with rain-fed sugarcane plants that enable the startup to use 99% less water than olive oil, 87% less land than canola oil, and emit 86% less CO2 than soybean oil.

This sugar is then converted into oil through fermentation (just like the way beer and wine are made) resulting in an oil full of healthy fats, neutral flavor, and lower emissions. Overall, Zero Acre’s oil has a 90% smaller environmental footprint than common vegetable oils, the company reports.

In addition to the emissions, land, and water use benefits, food fried in Zero Acre oil also release 10 times few toxins into the air over the course of 30 minutes of cooking the startup’s research shows.

Now, one of the biggest fast food chains in the world has taken notice: Shake Shack.

“Shake Shack has always been in a league of its own, with an iconic brand, deep culinary roots, and premium ingredients at a great value. We’re excited to further elevate the taste of their fries, chicken, and other menu items with cleaner frying in Zero Acre oil,” Jeff Nobbs, co-founder and CEO of Zero Acre Farms said in a statement.

“This partnership combines the deliciousness that Shake Shack is known for with the health and sustainability focus of Zero Acre, allowing diners to feel good with every bite,” he added.

two bottles of zero acre cooking oil
Image Credit: Zero Acre

While this is Zero Acre’s first national chain partnership, it isn’t new to the space. Earlier this year Chipotle Mexican Grill made an investment in the startup, through its venture fund, Cultivate Next, following Zero Acres’ oversubscribed $37 million Series A round that included participation from FootPrint Coalition.

Right now, all Shake Shack uses soy oil to fry items like their mushroom burgers and fries, but the soybean industry, as one study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production found, is linked to some of the most extensive deforestation, clearance of natural vegetation, and water pollution in the world due to intense agricultural practices.

Not to mention, as the World Wildlife Foundation reports, the resulting displacement of both small farmers and Indigenous people, especially in South America, the industry’s deforestation causes.

As a part of its Stand for Something Good campaign, Shake Shack is making the switch, kicking off New York City Climate Week with a pilot of Zero Acre’s cooking oil in two of its Big Apple locations. The two will exclusively fry with the startup’s oil, utilizing it across the menu from its crinkle-cut fries to its ‘shroom burger to its ‘chicken bites.

It may seem like a small change, but for every order of Shake Shack fries that uses Zero Acre’s oil, 5 square feet of land will be saved. The chain expects the pilot to run through October, possibly extending it to November, depending on how long Zero Acre’s current yield lasts.

“Like many food businesses, our menu items depend on the natural environment so we can continue serving guests the food they love,” Jeffrey Amoscato, Senior Vice President of Supply Chain and Menu Innovation at Shake Shack said in a statement.

“It’s why we are continuously exploring new ways to reduce our environmental footprint, including partnerships with companies like Zero Acre who are creating sustainable food solutions,” he added. “We remain committed to exploring initiatives that help us become a more sustainable business including the reduction of waste across operations, and collaborating with farmers, and suppliers on a regular basis.”

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