Assessing the Environmental Impact of Processed Foods

The environmental impact of 57,000 processed food products in the UK and Ireland has been assessed in a new report led by researchers in the  Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) project and the Oxford Population Health at the University of Oxford.

The research compared the environmental impacts of meat and meat alternative products such as plant-based sausages or burgers.

According to the study many meat alternatives had a fifth to less than a tenth of the environmental impact of meat-based equivalents.

Products that were more sustainable tended to be more nutritious, including meat and meat alternatives. Sugary beverages have a low environmental impact but also score poorly for nutritional quality. 

Lead author, Dr Michael Clark of the University of Oxford, 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 to most effectively communicate this information in order to shift behaviour towards more sustainable outcomes, but assessing the impact of products is an important step forward.”

Collaborating in the study were researchers from Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Oxford Martin School and the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, as well as from the University of Minnesota, Johns Hopkins University and the Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen.

Jennie Macdiarmid, Professor of Sustainable Nutrition and Health at the Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen, said:

“An important aspect of the study was linking the environmental impacts of composite foods with the nutritional quality, showing some of the synergies and trade-offs between different parameters. Using this new method manufacturers can reduce the environmental impact, while ensuring a high nutritional quality of products.”

The study looked at the differences in environmental impact between multi-ingredient products and found that those made of fruits, vegetables, sugar, and flour, such as soups, salads, bread and many breakfast cereals, have low impact scores, and those made of meat, fish and cheese, are at the high end of the scale.

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.

To estimate the environmental impact of products the team evaulated:

  • greenhouse gas emissions
  • land use
  • water stress
  • eutrophication potential — when bodies of water become enriched with nutrients, often causing harmful algal blooms and ultimately killing other life.

These four scores were combined into a single estimated composite environmental impact score per 100g of product.

young woman selecting purchases in supermarket
Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

What needs to be borne in mind is with the analysis is that information on ingredient sourcing, such as country of origin or agricultural production method is lacking from ingredient lists limiting the accuracy of the environmental impact estimates. Additionally, as portion sizes vary for different products there remain uncertainties in the total environmental impacts of products.

Pete Scarborough, Professor of Population Health at the University of Oxford, said:

“These types of foods make up most of the supermarket shopping that 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.”

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