HomeHealthNutritionMany of the most nutritious foods are also the most sustainable

Many of the most nutritious foods are also the most sustainable

While it’s relatively easy to compare the carbon footprint of producing apples versus oranges (or even beef), these calculations get much trickier when foods contain multiple ingredients — and these make up the bulk of what’s sold in a typical grocery store. . Until now, there were no good methods to determine the impact of such foods, but a team in Oxford recently published some of the first are working on developing a sustainability measure for anything (edible) that one might find at their local grocer.

In addition to the sustainability estimates of the approach, the Oxford team compared the results with the standard nutritional value NutriScore. With this, they found that there were many “win-wins” where foods were both sustainable and nutritious – although there were a few notable exceptions. And while the results weren’t too surprising, this method provides a new benchmark for consumers, retailers and producers to make more informed choices.

Secret recipes

One of the biggest hurdles in calculating the sustainability of multi-ingredient foods is that manufacturers rarely have to declare how much of each ingredient they put into a product. On the contrary, these details are often well-kept trade secrets.

But in some countries, such as Ireland and the UK, at least some of this information is publicly available: the percentages of certain key ingredients. The researchers of the Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP) program and Oxford Public Health at the University of Oxford used this data (from the FoodDB source) to estimate the percentages of ingredients in comparable products, including more than 57,000 food products representing nearly all foods and beverages in UK and Irish supermarkets.

Once they had estimates of the ingredients, they used the HESTIA environmental database to calculate the impact of the entire inventory. The team calculated an environmental score for each food that included a combined measure of four main impacts: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress and the potential to cause toxic algal blooms in downstream water bodies (i.e., eutrophication potential).

As a final step, they continued to compare their sustainability results with the commonly used nutritional metric called NutriScore. This ranks foods based on “good” nutrients, such as protein, fiber, fruit/vegetable content, and healthy oils, as well as “bad” nutrients such as calories, fat, salt, and added sugars.

“We use NutriScore because it is quite widely used in many countries around the world and many researchers are familiar with the concept behind it,” said lead author Michael Clark of the University of Oxford. “The whole premise has been developed to apply at the population level to result in better health outcomes. It has gone through a lot of validation and testing and at the population level it has been very effective at that.”


When the researchers tested their method with products with known ingredients, they found that it performed well. The resulting sustainability rankings were also largely consistent with what would be expected given the key ingredients in each item.

“Our findings weren’t super surprising,” Clark said. “For at least the last decade, there has been growing evidence that says certain commodities have a high impact – generally beef and sheep – and that certain commodities have a low impact, such as plant-based foods (with some exceptions such as chocolate and coffee).”

Overall, meat, cheese and fish — and anything made with these ingredients — had the highest estimated impact. Anything based on fruits, grains or vegetables that are ranked lower, as expected. In combination with NutriScore, there were clear win-win products that were nutritious and good for the environment, such as whole grain foods and products. Potato chips also performed particularly well due to their high “vegetable” content. Other foods, such as nuts, fish and meat, were nutritious, but relatively heavier on the environment.

Work in progress

The research team hopes their work will provide a starting point for a metric that can be used by consumers, producers and retailers to make more sustainable choices. Going forward, the biggest hurdle will still be the lack of transparency of ingredients, which is unlikely to improve for the foreseeable future. Where and how ingredients are produced is another factor that can significantly alter the impact, and it is rarely disclosed.

“We hope this is the start of a longer journey and an opportunity to work together to develop something that is mutually beneficial,” Clark said. “The most exciting part is its application – we now have a mechanism to allow comparisons between a number of food products that people produce, sell or buy, and this allows them to make informed decisions about the consequences of these choices. ”

PNAS, 2022. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2120584119

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