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A team led by researchers from the University of Oxford developed an algorithm that estimated the overall effects of more than 57,000 retail foods and drinks in the UK and Ireland.
The result: Meat and cheese products have by far the worst environmental balance.
In contrast, healthier products such as fruit, vegetables and bread perform far better in most cases.
The specialist team considered the cultivation, processing and transport of goods, reports the journal »Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences« (PNAS) .
To do this, it analyzed the lists of ingredients and linked them to environmental databases.
Among other things, the impact of food on greenhouse gas emissions, land use and water consumption was discussed.
The end result was an “environmental impact score” per 100 grams of each product, ranging from 0 (no impact) to 100 (highest impact).
It is also unhealthy but environmentally friendly
"For the first time, we have a transparent and comparable method for assessing the environmental footprint of multi-ingredient processed foods," summarizes co-author Peter Scarborough.
"These types of food make up the majority of our supermarket purchases, but until now there hasn't been a way to directly compare their impact on the environment."
Products made from dried beef, such as biltong or beef jerky, achieved the highest value in the study – such dried meat products are increasingly available as snacks in supermarkets.
As a rule, meat, fish and cheese products tended to have a higher value.
Desserts and baked goods are in the middle range.
Products made from fruit, vegetables, sugar and flour, such as soups, salads, bread and many breakfast cereals, were particularly environmentally friendly.
These included, for example, sugary drinks, which are unhealthy but have an extremely low environmental impact.
Consumers want more environmental information on products
The study also compared the environmental impacts of meat and meat alternatives, including plant-based sausages or burgers.
Many of the alternative products had only a fifth to less than a tenth of the environmental impact of their meat-based equivalents.
“Overall, the British results correspond to what we determined for the current dietary habits in Germany,” comments Rolf Sommer, Head of Agriculture and Land Use at WWF Germany, on the British study.
"We are dependent on the ecosystem services of an intact nature in many ways," says Sommer.
"Our eating patterns therefore endanger our own food security." The agricultural expert therefore recommends: "More fruit, vegetables, legumes and nuts and fewer animal products, that's a good formula for the environment and your own health."
The issues of climate and environment are important or very important to 84 percent of Germans when it comes to nutrition.
This is reported in the current nutrition report by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.
At the same time, 27 percent feel less or not at all well informed about the relevant connections.
The study authors hope their approach will give politicians and retailers an incentive to put more information on products.