Healthier foods have less environmental impact than processed foods

August 31, 2022

BBE Professor Jason Hill, Ph.D., and a team of researchers published a new study using publicly available information to derive first estimates of the environmental impact of >57,000 food products across four indicators: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and eutrophication potential. Their data points to healthier foods as better for the planet.


Understanding and communicating the environmental impacts of food products is key to enabling transitions to environmentally sustainable food systems [El Bilali and Allahyari, Inf. Process. Agric. 5, 456–464 (2018)]. While previous analyses compared the impacts of food commodities such as fruits, wheat, and beef [Poore and Nemecek, Science 360, 987–992 (2018)], most food products contain numerous ingredients. However, because the amount of each ingredient in a product is often known only by the manufacturer, it has been difficult to assess their environmental impacts. Here, we develop an approach to overcome this limitation. It uses prior knowledge from ingredient lists to infer the composition of each ingredient, and then pairs this with environmental databases [Poore and Nemecek Science 360, 987–992 (2018); Gephart et al., Nature 597, 360–365 (2021)] to derive estimates of a food product’s environmental impact across four indicators: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and eutrophication potential. Using the approach on 57,000 products in the United Kingdom and Ireland shows food types have low (e.g., sugary beverages, fruits, breads), to intermediate (e.g., many desserts, pastries), to high environmental impacts (e.g., meat, fish, cheese). Incorporating NutriScore reveals more nutritious products are often more environmentally sustainable but there are exceptions to this trend, and foods consumers may view as substitutable can have markedly different impacts. Sensitivity analyses indicate the approach is robust to uncertainty in ingredient composition and in most cases sourcing. This approach provides a step toward enabling consumers, retailers, and policy makers to make informed decisions on the environmental impacts of food products.