How science makes climate-friendly food choices
When it comes to climate change, the news can be a little overwhelming. From severe weather events to a celebrity’s private jet releasing CO2 into the environment, it can be difficult to know how you can control and make a difference yourself.
But you might be surprised to learn that the choices you make every day in your supermarket matter. Growing, shipping and processing all the food we eat accounts for one-third of all global emissions. .
“What we eat is the most influential thing we do every day in determining whether or not the environment is sustainable,” said nutritionist and professor Recipe for Survival: Things You Can Do to Live a Healthier, Greener Life.
But what, exactly, do you choose? To answer that question, researchers used publicly available data to create an algorithm that estimates the environmental footprint of 57,000 foods. . They ranked products, all sold in Ireland and the UK, based on four factors: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress and potential for eutrophication.
They tested 1,547 foods with new environmental impact scores ranging from 0 to 100 (higher scores mean worse for the environment) and published the results this month in the journal PNAS.
They found some overall trends. Sugary drinks, fruit, and bread tend to have a lower environmental impact, while meat, fish, and cheese have a higher environmental impact. It varies by product, but in general, more nutritious foods tend to be more environmentally sustainable as well.
They combine the scoring system with a scale called NutriScore to identify foods that are both nutritionally and environmentally “win-win”, such as fruits, vegetables, salads, breakfast cereals, some breads, and alternative meats such as tofu and vegan sausages. I discovered that there is
Speaking of sausages, here’s how researchers rated them, from highest to lowest environmental impact, depending on the raw material.
- Beef or lamb (around 30 points)
- Pork (around 10 points)
- chicken or turkey (about 3 points)
- Vegan or vegetarian (score of about 1)
One of the highest scores in terms of environmental impact is beef jerky, near 100 as it contains 100 grams of beef per 100 grams of final product.
“The slow transition to low-impact foods is a very important advance if people are interested in sustainability,” said Michael, a professor at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study. Clark said. “[This research] It’s just the start of a much longer journey to understanding how people can use this information to make more informed decisions. ”
The researchers don’t have a searchable database of their findings, but they used Hestia, an open data platform at the University of Oxford that standardizes agricultural statistics to assess environmental behavior, to help assess the impact of some foods on the environment. can see the effect of
In the US, brands don’t have to be as transparent about their ingredients as they are in other countries, making it harder to determine the impact of their products.
The exact recipe for a particular product is usually known only by the manufacturer, and a product may contain hundreds of ingredients. But in the US, he said, 80% of people want to change their lives to reduce environmental damage, according to a 2021 study. 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 simple ways to reduce your personal footprint at the grocery store.
These recommendations are based on the general findings of the study (since not everyone has access to the brands used in the UK study) and on tips from experts in sustainable diets and food systems. I’m here.
eat more legumes
Pulses are eco-friendly, healthy, inexpensive, and available at most local grocery stores. Beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas make up legumes and are essential to many diets.
“Pulses are the most sustainable source of protein on the planet,” says Sharon Palmer, registered dietitian nutritionist, author, and expert in sustainable food systems. That’s where you should get the pieces.”
One report from the Natural Resources Defense Council showed that growing legumes has 34 times less climate impact than producing the same amount of beef. Pulses require less water than many foods, do not require fertilizer, and actually improve the soil in which they grow rather than extracting nutrients. It is considered one of the healthiest foods you can eat.
eat less chocolate
Sorry about this. While delicious, chocolate (or growing cocoa to make chocolate) requires vast amounts of land and can lead to deforestation. Cereals, breakfast or protein bars, and other desserts containing chocolate have a greater environmental impact than chocolate-free alternatives.
In America alone, we eat more than four Empire State Buildings worth of chocolate each year. Demand is increasing, but climate change is making cocoa trees difficult to grow.
If your sweet tooth thrives without chocolate, try desserts and cereals with fruit, caramel, pistachios, hazelnuts and oats.
If you want to eat chocolate, choose a darker type.s
If giving up chocolate isn’t practical, try eating dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate.
“Milk chocolate has a greater environmental impact and is less nutritious than dark chocolate,” says Hannes. “But it may also depend on how they grow their chocolate.”
It depends on the brand you buy, so look for chocolate labeled “Fairtrade Certified” to make sure the brand follows ethical and sustainable growth practices. Chocolate doesn’t contain a lot of dairy or sugar and is better for the planet.
eat whole grains
Not all grains are created equal or sustainably. But whole grains require less water, are easier to transport, and have a longer shelf life than most other foods we eat. , is also a victory for the environment in the store.
In the bread aisle, opt for brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat bread or pasta, oats, naan, pita, or wraps. They have a lower environmental impact and are often healthier than cereal, white bread, white rice, chips, or crackers.
In addition, eating more grains supports a more balanced food system. Currently, one-third of the world’s arable land is used to feed livestock rather than being fed directly to humans. I’m here. Less than one-fifth of all food grown for animal feed ends up on grocery shelves as meat, eggs and dairy.
“It’s not sustainable, it’s not even sustainable,” says Hunes.
Root vegetables are a good choice
According to Palmer, buying vegetables of any kind is a step in the right direction, especially if you choose vegetables over animal products.
“The more plant-based the diet, the lower the environmental footprint,” she said.
But focusing on root vegetables and produce that require less water and space to grow can also help reduce a person’s footprint even further.
For example, a diet containing potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, chives, and onions is a good choice because these vegetables require less energy to grow. In addition, since it can be stored for a long time, it contributes to the reduction of food loss, which is a problem. Other non-root vegetables to consider are broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, pumpkin, 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.
Consume more seeds and nuts
Nuts are usually touted as a good source of protein, but they require a lot of water to grow. , you can choose a more environmentally friendly option.
But as long as you don’t eat a lot of nuts or waste them, Palmer says the environmental impact can be minimal.
“The portion sizes of nuts are very small and very dense,” Palmer said. It will be less.”
Depending on the brand and where the nuts are grown, you may choose to gravitate towards nuts that don’t require water. Please be aware of this when eating foods that contain a lot of water, such as Nuts that require less water to grow are pistachios, pecans, cashews, chestnuts, peanuts (technically legumes), or hazelnuts.
Regardless of the specific nut water usage, they are overall a much more sustainable protein than meat.
eat down the food chain
You can continue to consume meat and animal products and make sustainable choices in your diet.
“You don’t have to completely eliminate anything from your diet,” Clark said. “It’s important to move slowly in a plant-based direction.”
Even if you indulge in meat, Palmer says eating “lower down the food chain” can make a big difference. They require more land, water and time than turkeys. Salmon, clams, oysters, mussels and scallops are also options with less environmental impact than other proteins.
Meat substitutes are also excellent sources of protein that can be produced without using as many resources as the real thing.
What other ways can you change your diet to help the environment?
If you want to go further on your journey to more sustainable choices, here are some more common changes that can reduce your footprint.
Don’t waste food. About 40% of food is thrown away! That waste took the same amount of land, water, greenhouse gas emissions, and effort to create, but no one gets nourishment. Simply eating and utilizing leftovers can do wonders for our environmental impact.
Check the label. “Fairtrade Certified”, “Food Alliance Certified”, “Green Seal”, “Rainforest Alliance Certified”, and “USDA Organic” labels help brands demonstrate sustainable and ethical farming practices (rather than simply making claims). ) guarantees that it actually takes precedence.
eat locallyFoods from farmers markets and local producers may be lower in pesticide content and less travel distance to purchase. All of this lowers the item’s carbon load.
avoid plasticBring reusable grocery bags to the store, buy loose produce instead of prepackaged ones, and choose products made of glass rather than plastic.
These changes in your diet may seem small in the big picture, but Hunnes emphasized that what you do matters.
“It can be really self-defeating when you start thinking microscopically,” Hannes said. “Everything is different. And the more people join and take a step, the better we will all be.” ●