Cheese, coffee, meat... Which food has the worst environmental impact?
Mark Ashenden
The new food data could help decision making in the supermarket. /CFP

The new food data could help decision making in the supermarket. /CFP

How environmentally friendly is this block of cheese? Is there a greener alternative to this steak? Questions you may ask cruising down a supermarket aisle if you care for the planet.

Fear not! Help is at hand to ease your mind and boost your green thinking thanks to the efforts of a team of researchers at the University of Oxford.

They've analyzed over 57,000 food and drink products sold by the top supermarkets in the UK, used the ingredients data and created an algorithm to estimate their impact on the environment.

Greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and eutrophication (water becoming too rich in nutrients due to minerals washed into lakes and rivers) are the four factors studied leading to the scores on impact. Nutritional quality is also analyzed.

"About 55 percent of UK consumers are indicating they want to make better decisions on their foods," lead researcher Mike Clark says. "You also have the big supermarket players setting ambitious climate targets. Having this information means better informed decisions.

"From a scientific perspective, we've had information on individual commodities like soya or beef for a long time. We didn't have the information to assess the impact of actual products. We only had precise figures on how much of each ingredient is in a product for a tenth of them.

"To predict their impact you have to overcome that information gap. For example, you know how much beef is in a lasagne – but not tomatoes. We'd look at 100 lasagnes and calculate the average. We did that for every ingredient. We then linked all the ingredients to an existing database of environmental impacts."

In all these tables, the higher the score, the higher the impact. Beef and lamb are top by a long way. Pies and quiches are high. Meat alternatives are near the bottom. Fruit, potatoes, bread, fizzy and energy drinks are also low down.

However, it's not as simple as saying that 'anything but meat' is good for the environment. Seafood or even more snacky items like nuts and dried fruit are among the worst for their food footprint. Fish, pies and quiches are also high on the list. Helping shoppers think about alternatives is key.

"One of the most exciting parts of all this is the fine difference between similar types of products, like pasta sauces, biscuits, sausages and meat alternatives," Clark adds.

Could consumer behavior change with the new information? /Paul Childs/Reuters

Could consumer behavior change with the new information? /Paul Childs/Reuters

"If someone wants to keep eating biscuits, you say 'OK, what's the information on nutrition, cost, and environmental impact, and what are the similar products that may be better for all those outcomes?' That's exciting and how this data may be used."

With food and drink labels already showing nutritional data, Clark hopes this report is the first step to having environmental quantitative metrics and inspiring discussions and collaboration between governments, consumers, retailers and producers. A big dream is to develop a mobile app for shoppers and retailers wanting to make greener choices.

"Food has such a huge impact on the environment, if we are serious about reaching these climate targets then we need to do something different," Clark says.

"The evidence in the UK is that more people are eating plant-based food. In some countries, people eating more of something may be a good thing. If there's high meat consumption, there could be a greater focus on fruits and wholegrains.

"We can use this data to inform decision makers for individuals and all the groups in the supply chain. It opens up a lot of opportunities for policy makers.

"There's the hope they start thinking about policies affecting the environment and help to promote products that are more nutritious with less of an impact on the environment, providing a more informed shopping experience."

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