Eating fruits and vegetables is better for the planet than meat and cheese. But crisps and sugary drinks have a much lower environmental impact: scientists analyzed 57,000 products sold in supermarkets in the United Kingdom and Ireland in a large study published on August 8 in the scientific journal PNAS. The researchers, hoping their study will help consumers shop more sustainably without sacrificing anything for their health, cross-referenced their results with the nutritional properties of these foods.
Syrups, sodas or other fruit juices are among the products sold with the lowest environmental impact – because they contain mostly water – but the study points out that their nutritional value is poor. However, researchers believe that in general, the most sustainable products are the best from a nutritional perspective. This work confirms what other studies have already advanced by analyzing single ingredients (fruits, red meat, etc.). What is new is that the analysis here concerns products with multiple ingredients (sauces, prepared foods, etc.).
4 Criteria: Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Use of Limited Water Resources, Land Use, Aquatic Eutrophication
The task is difficult because the amount of each ingredient is considered a trade secret and therefore not very detailed: Of the more than 57,000 products sold by eight food retailers, only about 3% have a fully calculated composition. Therefore, scientists have developed an algorithm based on little known information to estimate the proportion of missing ingredients – in the United Kingdom and Ireland, ingredients are listed separately according to the quantity used. To assess the environmental impact, four factors were considered: greenhouse gas emissions, use of limited water resources, land use, and aquatic eutrophication (water pollution).
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Fish, cheese and red meat have a strong influence
Bread, but also some cereals, some prepared foods or desserts (cakes, biscuits, etc.) have a relatively low or medium environmental impact. On the other hand, fish, cheese and meat, especially red meat (lamb, beef) have a strong influence. “Providing plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy, and eggs can have major environmental benefits,” the study authors note. But “small” transitions can also help. For example, chicken or pork lasagna or even vegetarian can be used instead of beef lasagna, which has a strong environmental impact. In the future, better knowing the amount and origin of different ingredients will help to more accurately determine their impact on the environment, the researchers note.
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