Breakthrough impact assessment will ‘make it easier for all of us to have healthier, more sustainable diets’
While products such as veggie sausages and veggie burgers contain numerous ingredients and still require manufacturing, packaging and transport, compared to meat they mostly had between a fifth, to less than a tenth of the environmental impact of similar meat products, the researchers said.
The team, led by academics at the University of Oxford said their study was the first time a “transparent and reproducible method” of assessing the environmental impact of multi-ingredient foods had been undertaken.
“It provides a first step towards enabling consumers, retailers, and policymakers to make informed decisions on the environmental impacts of food and drink products”, they said.
Lead author, Dr Michael Clark, from Oxford Martin School, said: ‘By estimating the environmental impact of food and drink products in a standardised way, we have taken a significant first step towards providing information that could enable informed decision-making.
“We still need to find how best to communicate this information effectively, in order to shift behaviour towards more sustainable outcomes, but assessing the impact of products is an important step forward.”
In order to assess the 57,000 foods which make up the majority of food and drink available in the UK and Ireland, the team looked at greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and eutrophication potential – when bodies of water become enriched with nutrients, often causing harmful algal blooms and ultimately killing other life.
The team then combined these four scores into a single estimated composite environmental impact score per 100g of product.
Professor Peter Scarborough, Oxford Professor of Population Health, said: “This work is very exciting. For the first time, we have a transparent and comparable method for assessing the environmental footprint of multi-ingredient processed foods. These types of foods make up most of the supermarket shopping we do, but until now there was no way of directly comparing their impact on the environment.
“This work could support tools that help consumers make more environmentally sustainable food purchasing decisions. More importantly, it could prompt retailers and food manufacturers to reduce the environmental impact of the food supply thereby making it easier for all of us to have healthier, more sustainable diets.”
The team highlighted that previous work by the UK’s Food Standards Agency shows more than half of consumers want to make more sustainable decisions on the environmental impacts of foods and, at the same time, food corporations are setting ambitious net zero greenhouse gas targets.
However, there is a lack of detailed environmental impact information on food and drink products – which would allow consumers and corporations to make more sustainable choices.
Looking closely at the complexity of multi-ingredient products, the study found that foods made of fruits, vegetables, sugar, and flour, such as soups, salads, bread and many breakfast cereals, had low impact scores.
Those made of meat, fish and cheese, take a heavy toll on the planet.
Jerky, biltong, and other dried beef products, which typically have more than 100g of fresh meat per 100g of final product, often have the highest environmental impact.
Lower-impact products “often had one-half to one-tenth the environmental impact of higher-impact products”, the team said.
They said that this type of information, if clearly communicated to consumers and retailers, could help shift behaviour towards more sustainable foods without requiring large changes in dietary behaviour.
The team said a limitation of the analysis is that information on ingredient sourcing, such as country of origin or agricultural production method, is lacking from ingredient lists and this would help increase accuracy of the environmental impact estimates.
The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.