Supermarket Food in the UK Could Soon Have Eco-Labels

A woman reads the label on a yogurt container at a supermarket in the UK
A woman reads the label on a yogurt container at a supermarket in Torpoint, UK. Peter Cade / Stone / Getty Images
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What if when you went grocery shopping, the food and drink labels at the supermarket not only had nutrition information, but details about the environmental impact of products as well?

This could soon be a reality in the UK, as the first “transparent and reproducible method” of determining the environmental impact of food and drink products with multiple ingredients has been developed by a team of researchers from University of Oxford.

The study, “Estimating the environmental impacts of 57,000 food products,” was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study of the environmental impact of 57,000 food products — the majority of food and drink products for sale in supermarkets in Ireland and the UK — could aid consumers, as well as policymakers and retailers, in making educated choices regarding these impacts when purchasing food and drink products from their local supermarket, a University of Oxford press release said.

“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 to most effectively communicate this information in order to shift behaviour towards more sustainable outcomes, but assessing the impact of products is an important step forward,” said postdoctoral researcher at Oxford Martin School and lead author of the study Dr. Michael Clark in the press release.

In the study, the researchers found that the environmental impact of a great number of meat alternatives was one-fifth to one-tenth less than corresponding meat-based products.

According to a Food Standards Agency study, more than half of UK consumers want to make more sustainable choices regarding the environmental impact of the food they eat, but there isn’t enough information available for them to do so.

The study’s research team estimated the environmental impact of the food products based on information available to the public, including land use, greenhouse gas emissions, water stress and the potential of bodies of water to develop unhealthy and destructive algal blooms. The research team then put together the scores in each of the four categories to come up with an estimated environmental impact score for every 100 grams of a product.

“This work is very exciting – 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 that we do, but until now there was no way of directly comparing their impact on the environment,” said Peter Scarborough, professor of population health at the University of Oxford, in the press release. “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.”

The researchers found that the environmental impact of fruits and vegetables, along with products like flour, sugar, soups, bread and many cereals, was low, while fish, cheese and meat had higher environmental impact scores. Products made of dried beef like jerky frequently scored the highest.

The environmental impact of particular types of food products like cookies, lasagne and pesto sauces ran the gamut, with lower-scoring products frequently having one-tenth to one-half of the environmental impact of higher-scoring products. This information could be useful in helping to encourage retailers and consumers to opt for more sustainable food products without consumers having to drastically change their diets.

Using a method called Nutri-score, it was found that sustainability and nutrition of products tended to go hand in hand. Certain exceptions included beverages with lots of sugar, which scored low on environmental impact and nutrition.

“An important aspect of the study was linking the environmental impacts of composite foods with the nutritional quality, showing some of the synergies and trade-offs between different parameters. Using this new method manufacturers can reduce the environmental impact, while ensuring a high nutritional quality of products,” said Jennie Macdiarmid, professor of sustainable nutrition and health at the the Rowett Institute, University of Aberdeen, according to the press release.

Typically, only the manufacturer knows the quantity of each ingredient in a food or drink product, but the UK requires that the percentages for certain ingredients be listed, and ingredients are listed in the order of their amounts.

“The algorithms we developed can estimate the percentage contribution of each individual ingredient within a product and match those ingredients to existing environmental impact databases. Applying this methodology to generate impact scores for large numbers of products, we illustrated how this can be used to derive quantifiable insight on the sustainability of those products, and their relationship to their nutritional quality,” said head of foodDB Dr. Richie Harrington, as reported by the Daily Mail.

Information regarding agricultural production methods or country of origin of ingredients that would help improve environmental impact estimate accuracy was not used in the study, the press release said. Variations in portion sizes of products also lead to a certain level of unpredictability as to the full environmental impacts of certain products.

Scarborough told BBC News he has hope that the findings will result in eco-labeling of foods, but thinks that the food industry using the information to reduce its environmental impact would be the most beneficial result.

“It fills a huge gap. Manufacturers, caterers and retailers have targets for reaching net zero [emissions] and they don’t have the tools they need to get there. Now they have this data, and some of them are talking to us about things they can do to help people move towards more sustainable food purchasing. The data could help manufacturers adjust their formulations,” Scarborough said, as BBC News reported.

COOK, a frozen food company in Kent that has collaborated with the researchers, is interested in whether using eco-labels would aid consumers in adopting a diet that is more sustainable.

“The tool could help us by ensuring that as we are developing new recipes there is a delicious option for someone who is actively looking to reduce their environmental impact through what they eat,” said head of sustainable food at COOK Andy Stephens, as reported by BBC News.

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