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When it comes to climate change, the news can be a bit overwhelming. From severe weather events to celebrities’ private jets that spew carbon dioxide into the environment, it can be hard to know how you, personally, can have any control or make a difference.
However, you may be surprised to know that the choices you make every day in the supermarket do matter. Farming, shipping, and processing all the food we eat is responsible for one-third of all global emissions.
“What we eat is the single most impactful thing we do every day to be environmentally sustainable or not,” said dietitian and professor Dana Hunnes, the author of Recipe for Survival: What You Can Do to Live a Healthier and More Environmentally Friendly Life.
But what, exactly, to choose? To answer that question, researchers created an algorithm using publicly available data to estimate the environmental footprint of 57,000 food products. They ranked the products, which are all sold in Ireland and the UK, based on four factors: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and likelihood of eutrophication, which is agricultural runoff that can lead to toxic algae growth.
They tested their new environmental impact score, which ranged from 0 to 100 (with a higher score meaning it was worse for the environment), on 1,547 foods and published the results this month in the journal PNAS.
They found some overall trends. Sugary beverages, fruit, and bread tend to have a lower impact on the environment, while meat, fish, and cheese have a greater impact. (Somewhere in the middle are desserts and pastries.) And while the extent differs by individual products, in general, more nutritious foods also tend to be more environmentally sustainable.
They paired their scoring system with a measure called NutriScore and found that some foods were a “win-win” for both nutrition and the environment, including fruits, vegetables, salads, breakfast cereals, some breads, and meat alternatives such as tofu and vegan sausages.
Speaking of sausages, here’s how the researchers found they rate from the highest environmental impact to lowest, depending on the ingredients:
One of the highest scores in terms of environmental impact was beef jerky, coming in at close to 100 because it contains 100 grams of beef per 100 grams of the final product.
“If people do care about sustainability, then that slow transition toward low-impact foods is really important progress,” said Michael Clark, a researcher at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study. “[This research] is just a starting place for a much longer journey to figure out how people can use this information to make more informed decisions.”
While the researchers don’t have a searchable database of their findings, you can check the environmental impacts of some foods by using Hestia, an open data platform from the University of Oxford that standardizes agricultural stats to evaluate environmental behavior.
In the US, brands do not have to be as transparent about their ingredients as they do in other countries, making it harder to determine a product’s implications.
The exact recipes of specific products are usually known only by the manufacturers, and products can have hundreds of ingredients. However, 80% of people in the US do care and are willing to make changes to their lives to reduce their environmental damage, according to a 2021 report from Pew Research Center. Not surprisingly, nearly three-quarters of Americans don’t know how to identify sustainable products, according to the Business of Sustainability Index.
However, there are some easy ways you can reduce your individual footprint at the grocery store.
These recommendations are based on the study’s general findings (since not everyone has access to the brands used in the UK study) as well as tips from experts in sustainable diets and food systems.
“Pulses are the most sustainable protein source on the planet,” said Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian nutritionist, author, and expert in sustainable food systems. “That’s where we should be getting most of our protein.”
One report from the Natural Resources Defense Council showed that growing pulses was 34 times less damaging to the climate than producing the same amount of beef, by weight. Pulses need less water than many foods, don’t require fertilizer, and actually improve the soil they’re grown in, rather than extracting nutrients from it. Plus, they contain high amounts of fiber and are considered one of the healthiest foods you can eat.
We’re sorry about this one. While delicious, chocolate (or growing cacao to create chocolate) requires a massive amount of land and can lead to deforestation. Cereals, breakfast or protein bars, and other desserts with chocolate will have higher environmental consequences than their chocolate-free alternatives.
If your sweet tooth can be satiated without chocolate, try desserts or cereal with fruit, caramel, pistachios, hazelnuts, or oats.
If giving up chocolate isn’t realistic, try to consume dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate.
“Milk chocolate is going to have a higher environmental impact and be less nutritious than dark chocolate,” Hunnes said. “But that could also depend on how they’re growing the chocolate.”
It depends on the brands you buy, so be sure to look for chocolate labeled “Fair Trade Certified” to ensure the brand follows ethical and sustainable growing practices. But in general, dark chocolate won’t contain as much dairy or sugar and will be better for the planet.
Not all grains are created equally or sustainably. But whole grains require less water, are easy to transport, and have a longer shelf life than most other foods we eat. They also absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than some other plants, making them an environmental win at the store.
In the bread aisle, go for brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat bread or pasta, oats, naans, pitas, or wraps. They will have less of an environmental effect and are often better for your health than cereal, white bread, white rice, chips, or crackers.
Plus, eating more grains will support a more balanced food system. Right now, one-third of global croplands are used to feed livestock instead of going directly to humans. Of all the food grown to feed livestock, less than one-fifth of it makes it to our grocery shelves as meat, eggs, or dairy.
“This is not sustainable, and it’s not even maintainable,” Hunnes said.
Buying vegetables of any kind, especially if you’re choosing them over an animal product, is a step in the right direction, according to Palmer.
“The more plant-based the diet, the lower the environmental footprint,” she said.
But focusing on root vegetables and produce that need less water and space to grow will also help lower your personal footprint even more.
For example, meals with potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, leeks, and onions are good choices because these vegetables need less energy to cultivate. They can also be stored for a long time, which helps reduce problematic food waste. Other nonroot vegetables to consider are broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, squash, bok choy, and cucumbers.
When it comes to fruit, apples, bananas, berries, citrus, and grapes are some of the more sustainable foods to grow and enjoy.
Though nuts are typically touted as a great source of protein, it does take a lot of water to grow them. If that’s a concern for you, you can opt for more eco-friendly choices, like sunflower seeds, the next time you’re grocery shopping.
However, Palmer says that as long as you’re not eating nuts in bulk or wasting them, their environmental impact can be minimal.
“Nuts have a very small portion size and they’re very dense,” Palmer said. “Eating 1 to 2 ounces of nuts per day is still going to have a lower water footprint than the average diet.”
Though it depends on the brand and where the nuts are grown, you can choose to gravitate toward nuts that require less water. One almond can take more than 3 gallons to grow, so keep that in mind when eating almonds and other water-intensive foods, like walnuts. Nuts that require less water to grow are pistachios, pecans, cashews, chestnuts, peanuts (which are technically legumes), and hazelnuts.
Regardless of the water use of a particular nut, they are overall still a much more sustainable protein than meat.
You can still consume meat or animal products and make sustainable choices in your diet.
“We don’t have to completely remove anything from our diets,” Clark said. “It’s more about slowly moving in the plant-based direction.”
Even if you indulge in meat, Palmer says, eating “lower on the food chain” can still make a big difference. Beef, lamb, and sheep require more land, water, and time than chicken or turkey to make the same amount of meat. Salmon, clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops are also choices that will make a smaller impact on the environment than other proteins.
Meat alternatives are also a good source of protein that don’t use as many resources to produce as the real thing.
If you’d like to go even further in your journey toward more sustainable choices, here are more general changes that could lower your footprint:
Don’t waste food. Nearly 40% of food is thrown away! That waste still took the same amount of land, water, greenhouse gas emissions, and effort to create, but no one gets the nutrition. Simply buying only what you will eat, actually eating it before it spoils, and taking advantage of leftovers could do wonders for our environmental impacts.
Check for labels. “Fair Trade Certified,” “Food Alliance Certified,” “Green Seal,” “Rainforest Alliance Certified,” and “USDA Organic” labels ensure that brands are actually prioritizing sustainable and ethical growing methods (rather than just claiming to).
Eat local. Food from farmers markets and local growers will likely contain fewer pesticides, and has traveled a shorter distance before you buy it. All of this lowers an item’s carbon load.
Avoid plastic. Bring reusable grocery bags to the store, buy loose produce instead of prepackaged ones, and choose products in glass over plastic.
Even if these swaps in your diet may seem small in terms of the big picture, Hunnes emphasized that what you do matters.
“When you start to think microscopically, it can be really self-defeating,” Hunnes said. “Anything makes a difference. And the more people that get involved and make the step, the better off we will all be.” ●
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