Environmental impact of 57,000 multi-ingredient processed foods revealed

This paper suggests a new way of assessing the environmental impacts of supermarket food. Plant-based foods have the lowest environmental impactsMore nutritious foods are often more sustainable

By University of Oxford News Team

A study estimating the environmental impact of 57,000 food products in the UK and Ireland has been published by an Oxford-led research team in the journal PNAS 

The paper compares the environmental impacts of meat and meat alternative products, such as plant-based sausages or burgers, and finds many meat alternatives had a fifth to less than a tenth of the environmental impact of meat-based equivalents.

This is the first time a transparent and reproducible method has been developed to assess the environmental impacts of multi-ingredient products. It provides a first step towards enabling consumers, retailers, and policymakers to make informed decisions on the environmental impacts of food and drink products.

Lead author, Dr Michael Clark says, ‘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 best effectively to communicate this information, in order to shift behaviour towards more sustainable outcomes, but assessing the impact of products is an important step forward.’

“By estimating the environmental impact of food and drink products…we have taken a significant first step towards providing information that could enable informed decision-making”

Dr Michael Clarke

A study by the Food Standards Agency* shows more than half of UK consumers want to make more sustainable decisions on the environmental impacts of foods and, at the same time, food corporations are setting ambitious net zero greenhouse gas targets. But there is a lack of detailed environmental impact information on food and drink products – which would allow consumers and corporations to make more sustainable choices.

The study, led by researchers in Oxford’s Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) programme and Oxford Population Health used publicly available information to derive estimates of the environmental impact of 57,000 food products, which make up the majority of foods and drinks for sale in UK supermarkets.

They looked at greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and eutrophication potential — when bodies of water become enriched with nutrients, often causing harmful algal blooms and ultimately killing other life. For the purposes of analysis, visualisation and communication, the team combined these four scores into a single estimated composite environmental impact score per 100g of product.

Professor Peter Scarborough, Oxford Professor of Population Health, says, ‘This work is very exciting. For the first time, we have a transparent and comparable method for assessing the environmental footprint of multi-ingredient processed foods. These types of foods make up most of the supermarket shopping 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.’

“This work is very exciting. For the first time, we have a transparent and comparable method for assessing the environmental footprint of multi-ingredient processed foods….most of the supermarket shopping we do”

Professor Peter Scarborough

The researchers quantify the differences in environmental impact between multi-ingredient products and find 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.

When looking at specific types of food products, such as meat and their alternatives, lasagne, cookies and biscuits, and pesto sauces, the researchers found large variation within these types of foods. For these food types, lower-impact products often had one half to one tenth the environmental impact of higher-impact products. This type of information, if communicated to consumers and retailers, may help shift behaviours towards more sustainable foods without requiring large changes in dietary behaviour, such as swapping beef for beans.

When comparing the environmental impact score to their nutritional value, as defined by the Nutri-score method, products that were more sustainable tended to be more nutritious, including meat and meat alternatives. There are exceptions to this trend, such as sugary beverages, which have a low environmental impact but also score poorly for nutritional quality.

Jennie Macdiarmid, Professor of Sustainable Nutrition and Health at the the Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen, says, ‘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.’

“Using this new method manufacturers can reduce the environmental impact, while ensuring a high nutritional quality of products”

Professor Jennie Macdiarmid

The amount of every ingredient in a multi-ingredient food or drink product is usually known only to the manufacturer, but in the UK they are legally obliged to provide percentage values for certain ingredients, and ingredients are listed on packaging in order of size. Dr Clark and colleagues used known percentages and order of ingredients to infer unknown values, cross-referencing products and ingredients through use of a large dataset of products. Individual ingredients were mapped to environmental databases, and the percentages of all ingredients within each product were used to estimate the impact of each whole product.

The analysis makes use of foodDB – a Big Data research platform at Oxford, which collects and processes data daily on all food and drink products available in 12 online supermarkets in the UK and Ireland, and a comprehensive review of 570 studies of the environmental impact of food production, including data from 38,000 farms in 119 countries.

A limitation of the analysis is that information on ingredient sourcing, such as country of origin or agricultural production method, is lacking from ingredient lists and this would help increase accuracy of the environmental impact estimates. Additionally, as portion sizes vary for different products, there remain uncertainties in the total environmental impacts of products.

“Our method fills an information gap on the environmental impacts of multi-ingredient foods”

Dr Richie Harrington

Dr Richie Harrington, head of foodDB, says, ‘Our method fills an information gap on the environmental impacts of multi-ingredient foods. The algorithms we developed can estimate the percentage contribution of each individual ingredient within a product and match those ingredients to existing environmental impact databases. Applying this methodology to generate impact scores for large numbers of products, we illustrated how this can be used to derive quantifiable insight on the sustainability of those products, and their relationship to their nutritional quality.’

One Industry Response to Eco-labelling

Here’s Phil Bicknell, Head of Business Development at CIEL, and his take on eco-labelling…

Recent work to estimate the composition of 10,000s of food and drink products has been in the news this week. As the coverage has flagged, the analysis has its limit and references lack of information on country of origin or agricultural production method. I’ll admit that I’ve only skimmed the headlines and the full paper is top of my reading list. However, that point about the work’s limitations feels something of an understatement to me.

Anyone who has looked in detail at the emissions and broader sustainability issues associated with livestock production systems will know the significant variation between countries, between product types, and between systems. The reality is that beef produced in the UK has half the GHG impact of the global average, for example. The bottom line is that broad assumptions and estimates don’t necessarily move us further forward when we are dealing with very technical and very complex issues.

On the surface, the work has generated some eye-raising results. How can sugar-coated cereals and fizzy drinks be better for us than nutrient-rich, locally produced meat? We know meat, eggs and dairy are naturally highly nutritious sources of protein, which many of the foods with higher ratings in this report are not. There seems to be a gap when looking at the issue of nutrient quality, using one single figure to describe very different foods. It strikes me that meat or dairy products can provide more of the nutrients needed in a healthy diet than many of the foods listed.

Another gap is the continually evolving nature of agricultural production. I have no doubt that a greater focus is being given to the important role livestock play in efficient, circular food systems across UK agriculture. Whether it’s the re-introduction of livestock to arable cropping systems or the re-assessment of the value of nutrients in farm waste, the livestock industry is not standing still. And all of the above is before we get into the challenges of assessing biodiversity.

I understand that companies are keen to shout about their environmental credentials, but I can’t help feeling that work like this has the potential to add to the confusion for shoppers. More importantly, it has the potential to do a disservice to some positive steps being taken in the UK by the food industry and by farmers.

Let us know your thoughts on The Farming Forum…