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Study reveals environmental impact of over 57,000 food products
If you want to do something good for the environment when shopping for food, you should avoid meat, fish and cheese and instead opt for fruit, vegetables and bread. This is the conclusion of a British study that assessed the environmental impact of more than 57,000 products available in supermarkets, including many processed foods. As the authors also report in the "Proceedings" of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences ("PNAS"), many nutritious products have a low environmental impact.
The issues of climate and environment are important or very important to 84 percent of Germans when it comes to nutrition. This is reported in the current nutrition report of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. At the same time, 27 percent feel less or not at all well informed about the relevant connections.
In fact, quite a few consumers seem to feel overwhelmed when it comes to making decisions for an environmentally friendly diet. In addition, supermarket products often consist of combinations of different ingredients.
To better assess the environmental impact of such products, a team led by researchers at the University of Oxford developed an algorithm to estimate the total impact of more than 57,000 retail foods and beverages in the United Kingdom and Ireland. In doing so, the authors quantified such things as the food's impact on greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water consumption.
From this, they then determined a single composite environmental impact score per 100 grams of each product, ranging from 0 (no impact) to 100 (greatest impact). "For the first time, we have a transparent and comparable method for assessing the environmental footprint of processed foods with multiple ingredients," summarizes co-author Peter Scarborough. "These types of foods make up the bulk of our supermarket purchases, but until now there was no way to directly compare their environmental impact."
Products made from dried beef, such as biltong or beef jerky, scored highest in the study - such jerky products are also found as snacks in an increasing number of supermarkets in this country. In general, products made from meat, fish and cheese tended to have a higher score, while many desserts and baked goods were in the middle range and products made from fruit, vegetables, sugar and flour, such as soups, salads, bread and many breakfast cereals, were at the lower end of the scale.
The study also compared the environmental impact of meat and meat alternatives, including plant-based sausages or burgers. It found many of the alternative products had only one-fifth to less than one-tenth the environmental impact of their meat-based equivalents.
"Overall, the UK results are consistent with what we found for current dietary habits in Germany," commented Rolf Sommer, head of agriculture and land use at WWF Germany, in an independent assessment. "We are dependent on the ecosystem services of an intact nature in many ways," Sommer continues. "Our dietary patterns therefore threaten our own food security." The agricultural expert concludes, "More fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts and less animal products is a good formula for the environment and our own health."
This recommendation not only fits with the global Planetary Health Diet guidelines presented in 2019 by the Eat Lancet Commission, which set targets for a balanced and environmentally sound diet. They also point to another finding of the recent study. Its authors observed that more sustainable foods also tended to be more nutritious.
The analysis also showed large differences within a product category. Depending on ingredients and composition, for example, different pesto sauces could have significantly different environmental impacts and nutritional values; the researchers made similar comparisons for cookies, lasagna and sausages.
For the authors, this means that even consumers for whom major dietary changes are not possible or attractive enough could make a contribution to reducing environmental impacts and to their own health by choosing specific and appropriately labeled foods.
Overall, the researchers hope that the method they have developed will form a first step in enabling consumers, retailers and policymakers to make informed decisions about the environmental impact of food and beverages./fm/DP/zb (dpa)
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