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New analysis provides a first step towards enabling consumers, retailers, and policymakers to make informed decisions on the environmental impacts of multi-ingredient food and drink products. 

Recent surveys indicate that over half of UK consumers want to make their diets more sustainable, and increasing numbers of food companies are setting ambitious net zero greenhouse gas targets. However, reducing the environmental footprint of foods is hindered by the lack of detailed environmental impact information, particularly for food products containing multiple ingredients. 

To address this, researchers at Oxford Population Health have contributed to a study which combined different environmental impacts into a standardised score for the majority of individual food and drink products for sale in UK supermarkets. The research, published in PNAS this week, is part of the University of Oxford’s Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) programme which aims to provide evidence and tools for decision makers to promote healthy and sustainable diets. 

The researchers used publicly available information to estimate the environmental impact of 57,000 food products, based on greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and eutrophication potential.* For multi-ingredient products, each individual ingredient was mapped to environmental databases. The team developed an algorithm that estimated the percentages of all ingredients within each food, and these were used to estimate the overall impact of the whole product. 

Key findings 

  • Multi-ingredient products made of fruits, vegetables, sugar, and flour (such as soups, salads, bread, and many breakfast cereals) had low impact scores, whilst those made of meat, fish, and cheese were 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) had some of the highest environmental impacts. 
  • Many meat alternative products (such as plant-based sausages or burgers) had a fifth to less than a tenth of the environmental impact of meat-based equivalents. 
  • 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 were exceptions to this trend, such as sugary beverages, which had a low environmental impact but also score poorly for nutritional quality. 

According to the researchers, this type of information, if communicated to consumers and retailers, may help shift behaviours towards more sustainable foods both by reformulation of products, and by guiding consumers towards lower impact products. 

The analysis made use of foodDB – a big data research platform at Oxford Population Health that collects and processes data daily on all food and drink products available in twelve online supermarkets in the UK and Ireland, and a comprehensive review of 570 studies of the environmental impact of food production, which includes data from 38,000 farms in 119 countries. 

Dr Richie Harrington, senior author for this paper and lead researcher for foodDB states: ‘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. We have illustrated how this can be used to derive quantifiable insight on the sustainability of food products, and their relationship to their nutritional quality.’     

Professor Pete Scarborough, a co-author on the study, said: ‘For the first time we have a transparent and comparable method for assessing the environmental footprint of multi-ingredient processed foods. This 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.’ 

*Eutrophication occurs when bodies of water become enriched with nutrients, often causing harmful algal blooms and ultimately killing other forms of life.

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