by Marion Nestle
Sep 1 2022

Environmental impact of 57,000 food products!

If I wore a hat it would be off to the authors of this astonishing paper: “Estimating the environmental impacts of 57,000 food products.

They used public databases to rank food products by a combination of nutritional and four environmental factors: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and eutrophication potential.

Their overall conclusion: more nutritious foods are more environmentally sustainable (whew), but with some caveats.

The paper has interesting illustrations.  Here’s one that correlates the nutritional value of sausages to their environmental impact.  Vegan sausages are the most nutritious and have the least environmental impact; beef sausages are least nutritious by the criteria used here and the greatest environmental impact.

We can argue about the criteria used to establish nutritional quality and environmental impact and the way the algorithm works, but what an ambitious project!

At the very least, it’s a useful starting point.

Lots of people are interested in the environmental implications of food production and consumption.  See the latest paper from the group at Deakin University in Australia: “A conceptual framework for understanding the environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods and implications for sustainable food systems.”

This review found that UPFs are responsible for significant diet-related environmental impacts. Included studies reported that UPFs accounted for between 17 and 39% of total diet-related energy use, 36–45% of total diet-related biodiversity loss, up to one-third of total diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, land use and food waste and up to one-quarter of total diet-related water-use among adults in a range of high-income countries.

What all of this says is that basic dietary advice to eat a largely (not necessarily exclusively) plant-based diet, balanced in calories. and avoiding much in the way of ultra-processed foods is not only best for health, but also for the environment.