Eating for the environment

Why diversity matters

Biological diversity — biodiversity for short — represents the variety and differences of life on our planet. The term covers everything from one’s genes to the entirety of nature’s ecosystems. Biodiversity is required to sustain the web of life on which Earth’s inhabitants depend for food, water, medicine, a healthy climate, and economic stability.

A plethora of systems (some natural, some manufactured) threatens our planet’s biodiversity, climate, and health. Our “modern” food production and consumption system plays a major role in this biodiversity crisis. Experts estimate our current food system — which includes farming, shipping, and processing —  contributes some 33 percent to the global climate crisis. (Just last week, The New York Times ran an article titled “Save the Planet, Put Down that Hamburger.”)

In my Health Yourself column “The environment is hurting and so are we,” I describe how environmental pollution impacts our health and what we can do about it. And in “Environmentally speaking,” I illustrate the links between human health and ecological health.

Now, I’d like to highlight the environmental impact of specific foods across the major indicators of environmental health.

Food’s environmental impact

Pigs in cages are stacked atop one another.

Our system of food production is detrimental to our health! (Image: iStock.)

Research shows if our system of food production/distribution/consumption continues at the current pace, it will exacerbate the degradation of the planet’s land, air, and water. In addition, humans will see a rise in diet-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers.

In a recent study, researchers developed a new way to assess the environmental impact of foods containing multiple ingredients. This unique dataset derives estimates of an individual food’s environmental impact across four indicators that represent the biodiversity crisis:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Land use
  • Water stress
  • Eutrophication (This is a condition caused by excess nutrients in a lake or other body of water, frequently due to runoff from land, that creates a destructive chain reaction in the ecosystem.)

The researchers established an environmental score for numerous foods across different categories. This novel approach can provide a way for consumers, retailers, and policymakers to make informed decisions in the future.

The NutriScore

Food Grouping


Cereals, bread 7.5
Snacks 8
Beverages 9
Desserts 9
Kitchen accessories (sauces, dressings, jams and spreads, sugar, and sweeteners) 11
Fruits, vegetables, nuts 12
Prepared foods 12
Dairy, eggs, meat, & plant-based alternatives 30

Researchers used the composition information of 57,185 food products in a publicly available dataset from Britain and Ireland to estimate each food’s environmental impact. The researchers paired their scoring system with a measure called NutriScore that considers both “negative” components (sugars, saturated fats, salt, and calories) and “positive” components (protein, fiber, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts) in 100g or 100ml of a food to calculate its overall nutritional value. The NutriScore ranges from 0 (no impact) to 100 (highest impact).

For example, on average, across the four most important environmental indicators, a product with an estimated NutriScore of 10 would have 5 times the impact of a product with a NutriScore of 2 but half the impact of a product with a score of 20. Results showed that, on average, foods with a low environmental impact for one indicator have low impacts for the other.

The accompanying table illustrates the impact on the environment of eight different food categories, per 100g. The data in the table show that in most instances, only a small difference exists between “a most sustainably sourced product” and a “least sustainably sourced product.” However, the gap is substantial when comparing animal-based products versus plant-based foods. And, of course, there are differences within each category that can be substantial.

An example of a Nutri-score label on a food product. It shoes letters A-E.

Environmental impact can be categorized by colors (five shades) and letters (A to E), much like a report card. (Image: iStock.)

Coffee has the highest NutriScore in the beverage category, while juices and smoothies have comparatively lower NutriScores. In the Dairy (et al.) category, beef and lamb score very high compared to yogurts, fresh seafood, and milk alternatives (i.e., Oat Milk).

Environmental impact can be categorized by colors (five shades) and letters (A to E, like a report card). The variations distinguish between foods with a higher nutritional quality (dark and light greens) and products with a lower nutritional quality (orange and red). This type of “traffic-light” labeling on food packaging is used successfully in several European countries. The label makes it easy to choose climate-friendly foods (A, B, or C) compared to the alternatives (D and E).

Becoming a climate-friendly food consumer

Research offers several strategies to help us enjoy healthy food while protecting the climate.

Eat more pulses.
Beans, chickpeas, lentils, and peas are known as pulses, and are the most sustainable protein source on the planet. Pulses are environmentally friendly, healthy, and cheap, and you can buy them at most local grocery stores. One Natural Resources Defense Council report showed that growing pulses is 34 times less damaging to the climate than producing the same amount of beef, by weight. Pulses require less water to grow than most foods and don’t need fertilizer. In addition, pulses contain high amounts of fiber and are considered one of the healthiest foods.

Eat less chocolate.
Growing cacao to create chocolate requires massive amounts of land, leading to deforestation. Cereals, protein bars, and other desserts that contain chocolate have higher environmental consequences than their chocolate-free alternatives. Try desserts or cereal with fruit, caramel, pistachios, hazelnuts, or oats. Try consuming dark chocolate, which has a lower environmental impact and is generally more nutritious than milk chocolate. Look for a “Fair Trade Certified” label to ensure the brand adheres to ethical and sustainable growing practices.

Eat whole grains.
Not all grains are created equally or sustainably, but they require less water, are easily transported, and have a longer shelf life than most foods. Whole grains also absorb considerable atmospheric carbon dioxide, making them an environmental superfood. Also, brown rice, quinoa, oats, naan, pita, and whole wheat bread or pasta are better for the environment (and our health) than cereal, white bread, white rice, or crackers.

Eat more root vegetables.
Meals with potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, leeks, and onions are good choices because these vegetables need less energy to cultivate. They can be stored for a long time, which helps reduce food waste. Other non-root vegetables to consider are broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, squash, bok choy, and cucumbers.

Eat more fruits.
Apples, bananas, berries, citrus, and grapes are some of the more sustainable foods to grow and enjoy.

Eat more seeds and nuts.
Even though nuts are typically touted as a great protein source, they require a lot of water (one almond takes about 3 gallons of water to grow). More eco-friendly (and less-thirsty) choices include sunflower seeds, pistachios, pecans, cashews, chestnuts, peanuts (technically legumes), and hazelnuts.

Eat lower on the food chain.
Beef, lamb, and sheep require more land, water, and time than chicken or turkey to make the same amount of meat. Salmon, clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops also have a lower environmental impact.

Change some food habits

  • Don’t waste food. In America, almost 40 percent of the food consumed is discarded. That’s an environmental problem. Just buying what we will and can eat will help the environment.
  • Check food labels. “Fair Trade Certified,” “Food Alliance Certified,” “Green Seal,” “Rainforest Alliance Certified,” and “USDA Organic” labels ensure brands are prioritizing sustainable and ethical growing methods.
  • Eat local. Food from farmers’ markets and local growers usually contain fewer pesticides and require less transportation.
  • Avoid plastic. Buy loose produce instead of prepackaged items, and choose products in glass over plastic.

I hope you will consider these actions to lower your food-consumption environmental footprint.

  • British Nutrition Foundation. “Bridging gaps in food labeling.” 2022. Nutrition Bulletin;47:2.
  • Clark, M.A., et al. “Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets.” 2020. Science;708,705.
  • Clark, M.A., et al. “Multiple health and environmental impacts of foods.” 2019. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) USA;116,23357.
  • Clark, M.A., et al. “Supplemental data for estimating the environmental impacts of 57,000 food products.” 2022. Oxford Research Archives.
  • Drewnowski, A. “Uses of nutrient profiling to address public health needs: From regulation to reformulation.” 2017. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society;76:220
  • Dunford, E., et al. “International collaborative project to compare and monitor the nutritional composition of processed foods.” 2012. The European Journal of Preventive Cardiology;19:1326.
  • Hafner, E., Pravst, I. “Comparison of NutriScore and health star rating nutrient profiling models using large branded foods composition database and sales data.” 2023. The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health;20(5):3980.
  • Hafner, E., Pravst, I. “Evaluation of the ability of Nutri-Score to discriminate the nutritional quality of prepacked foods using a sale-weighting approach.” 2021. Foods;10:1689.
  • Julia, C., et al. “Are foods ‘healthy’ or ‘healthier’? Front-of-pack labeling, and the concept of healthiness applied to foods.” 2022. British Journal of Nutrition;127(6):948.
  • Mertens, E., et al. “Ultra-processed food consumption in adults across Europe.” 2022. European Journal of Nutrition;61:1521
  • Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 October 2011 on the provision of food information to consumers.
  • Springmann, M., et al. “Mitigation potential and global health impacts from emissions pricing of food commodities.” 2016. Nature Climate Change;7,69.
  • Springmann, M., et al. “Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits.” 2018. Nature;562,519.
  • Tesco PLC, Climate change.
  • WHO Guiding Principles and framework manual for front-of-pack labelling for promoting healthy diets.
  • Willett, W., et al. “Food in the Anthropocene: The EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems.” 2019. Lancet;393,447.
  • Williams, D.R., et al. “Proactive conservation to prevent habitat losses to agricultural expansion.” 2021. Nature Sustainability;4,314.


  1. Michael von Fange - University of Minnesota alumnus

    If everyone did what he recommended there is no question it would be better for people and planet. However he is ignoring arguably the most important piece of the puzzle: it’s not the cow, it’s the how. Just like it matters what we eat, it matters, maybe even more, what our food eats. Biodiversity you say? Native prairies that millions of bison roamed had up to 400 different species in a single acre. The benefits of that diversity were immense from carbon capture to slowing of disease spread to micro climate water cycles. If we converted to prairie, only the crops that are grown to feed our confined animal feed operations (CAFOs) and the crops used to produce ethanol, we would have more than enough grassland for our cows to craze and restore the soil and our health. I wonder how many billions of acres of forest will have to burn, lives lost, cities underwater… before this will change.


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