Scientists have determined the environmental and nutritional impact of more than 57,000 food products to help consumers make better decisions.
The “impact scores” created by researchers compared products like beef, chicken or pork sausages to their vegetarian or vegan alternatives.
Meat-based products, particularly beef and lamb, received the highest-impact scores, meaning they were the worst foods for the environment.
Other items that had some of the worst environmental impacts included nuts and dried fruit, coffee, cheese, fish and seafood, chocolate, and ready meals.
Meanwhile, items like rice, juices, olives, onion rings, and roast potatoes have among the smallest impact, researchers found.
The study also found that products that were more sustainable tended to be more nutritious. However, some products did not follow this trend, such as sugar drinks, which had a low environmental impact but scored poorly for nutritional value.
In order to score the products using publicly available information, the Oxford-led team developed an algorithm to derive a first estimate of the environmental impact of food products across four environmental indicators.
These indicators included greenhouse gas emissions, water use, land use and “aquatic eutrophication potential”, which refers to a process where bodies of water become over-saturated with plant and algae growth.
The scientists hope their research will provide a first step towards giving consumers, retailers and policymakers the information they need to make informed decisions when it comes to the environmental impacts of food and drink products.
Lead author Dr Michael Clark said in a statement: “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 to communicate this information effectively, in order to shift behaviour towards more sustainable outcomes, but assessing the impact of products is an important step forward.”
A 2021 poll carried out by the Food Standards Agency found that nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of British consumers believe it is important to buy food that has a low environmental impact.
More than half of respondents (54 per cent) said they would like to improve their diets to be more sustainable. However, less than half (48 per cent) believe they know what a sustainable diet consists of and 71 per cent identified at least one barrier stopping them from making more sustainable food decisions.
The study acknowledges that a lack of sourcing information for each ingredient of each product posed a limitation to “fully understanding the impacts of different foods”.
However, experts are still hopeful that it will help consumers who are seeking more information about the impact of their shopping habits.
Professor Peter Scarborough, professor of population health at Oxford, told News Medical: “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,” he added.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies