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5 ways you can eat more sustainably

Updated: Sep 1, 2023


Sustainability is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but what does it really mean when it comes to food? The Food and Agriculture Organization defines sustainable food and agriculture as a system “in which food is nutritious and accessible for everyone, and where natural resources are managed in a way that maintains ecosystem functions to support current, as well as future human needs” [1]. In short, sustainability means making food available that is both nutritious and accessible to all, without comprising the environment.

For every sandwich we prepare, coffee that we drink, and burger that we consume, there is a greater impact than just how good we think each mouthful tastes. We have been steadily eating into (excuse the pun) our planetary resources for hundreds of years, with detrimental effect on the environment. Predictions for the global population estimate that it will reach 10 billion by 2050, meaning our current food infrastructure, production and farming methods will have to adapt significantly to deal with this phenomenal demand on resources [2].


Living sustainably isn’t about becoming vegan overnight. Instead, it’s about making small changes and choices as individuals, which collectively can have a significant and positive effect on our world. Here are 5 ways to help you make more informed choices in your day-to-day life. We hope these snippets of information get you thinking and demonstrate the effect one small change can have on the world.



To beef or not to beef?

Food production contributes to one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with 53% associated with direct and indirect livestock activity such as cattle methane production and land use [3]. Livestock provide a significant proportion of the world’s protein supply, which most of us consume regularly. While red meat is a great source of energy, with complete amino acids it also supports our bodies vitamin and mineral demands. However, numerous other sources such as tofu, beans and lentils also have similar nutritional profiles, when part of a balanced diet.


The carbon footprint of beef is the largest of all consumables, with a 100g serving having the same size carbon footprint as driving 79km [4] – that’s the same as driving from London to Cambridge! While protein is a staple macronutrient, there are alternative animal-based products with smaller carbon footprints including British pork, chicken and even fish, all of which contain all the amino acids the body needs [5].


Whilst we’re not suggesting immediate radical dietary change, it’s worth being consciously aware of the significant impact our personal food choices have on the environment. Having autonomy over your food choices is powerful, it’s a unique opportunity to lower your personal impact on the environment [6].



Top Tip: Try to enjoy a few meat-free meals each week! A dish packed with lentils, beans or chickpeas will be nourishing and will keep you feeling full. Fancying a meat-based dish? Swap beef for chicken, pork or fish if you can.





Local Vs Boat Vs Air

You might be familiar with the phrase “Eat locally”. Whilst this is great for supporting local suppliers and family-run businesses, its effect on the environment might not be as powerful as you might first think. Confused? Let me explain…


If you regularly shop at your local farmers market or are consciously shopping locally to live more sustainably you might be surprised to learn it’s what you eat rather than where the food has travelled from. Sustainability expert Hannah Ritchie at Our World in Data, explains that whilst transport contributes to a carbon footprint, on average it only accounts for 18% [7]. Meanwhile, land and farming factors such as the use of fertilisers accounts for more than 80% of a foods carbon footprint [7].


Where food miles begin to matter is when air freight is involved. Whilst it is hard to determine where your food has travelled from when cruising the supermarket aisles, it is worth keeping an eye out for fruits and vegetables that are on the supermarket shelves and avoid the ones that are out of UK seasonality. Highly perishable foods such as green beans and berries often won’t survive the slower boat crossing, therefore are flown into our UK supermarkets.


To give you an insight into the impact air miles on food items can have, consider this: if you buy out-of-season asparagus flown in from Peru, per kilogram, asparagus has a higher carbon footprint than a kg of chicken or pork. A common misconception is the carbon footprint of avocados. Whilst we sadly can’t easily grow this brunch staple in the UK, the transportation factor only contributes to 8% of an avocados overall carbon footprint due to it travelling via boat [8].


Top Tip: Remember to shop in the frozen aisle. Frozen fruit and veg have their nutrients locked in, meaning you can enjoy some of your favourites more frequently throughout the year.






Is Oat the GOAT? (Greatest Of All Time)

Milk alternatives have been growing exponentially over recent years, with UK sales of Oat milk doubling from 2019 to 2020 [9]. But is the increasing popularity of plant-based ‘milk’ alternatives a good thing nutritionally and sustainably speaking?


When consumed as part of a balanced diet, cow’s milk provides essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals, such as fats, protein, B12 and calcium [10]. It’s important children and adolescents consume adequate calcium to obtain peak bone mass [11]. On average cow’s milk contains more than 3% protein, whereas plant-based alternatives may contain <1% [12]. However, it is worth noting that protein deficiency is not a common problem in the UK, and most of us consume more than enough protein without realising [13].


As mentioned previously, cows produce enormous amounts of CO2 that contribute to sustainability challenges. Therefore, oat, soy, rice and almond milk have a useful role to play. As the global demand for meat, milk and eggs continues to grow it is refreshing to see the milk alternative market expanding in availability, cost and taste [14].


If you’re looking for a nutritionally similar alternative to cows milk, non-organic fortified soy milk provides a comparable protein concentration and less fat per serving, and the fortification process adds important minerals such calcium and iodine, sometimes including vitamin D and B12 [12].


Top Tip: To make a more sustainable choice, try opting for a fortified dairy-free plant-based alterative every now and then, it’s important to acknowledge the negative impact cattle have on the globe, so trying a plant-based alternative really can help towards making a difference.




The UK really does have seasons!

It’s hard to believe, but the UK does have some form of seasonal calendar (forgetting the downpour that July started with). Each month brings a variety of crops ready for harvest, whether on an industrial scale or in your own garden or window veg box.


Shopping seasonally can also prove financially beneficial. Supermarkets are more likely to have an abundance of particular fruit and veg at certain times of the year, thus lowering the price slightly. But if you’re looking for a punnet of strawberries in November or asparagus spears in February, you’re more than likely to pay a premium due to the import by sea, or worst still by air.


Having an awareness of the availability of fruits and vegetables in the UK means you can plan your meals and budget around what is readily accessible and in season at your local supermarket or farmers market. It also means it is easier to reach your 5 a day goal as recommended by the Eatwell Guide [15]. The BDA have a great guide to find out what is in season each month in the UK [16].


Top Tip: Eating a variety of vegetables doesn’t have to be dull: try and include as many colours on your plate as possible. Or better still keep a tally with how many different plants you can eat and try to better your score each week or month.


BONUS +

With schools almost finished for summer it’s easy to dread the “What’s for dinner?” question over the next few months. To try and make things a little more interesting we’ve put together a Fruit and Veg bingo (Found at the very bottom of this post)! Entice the little ones into trying each food listed over the next month, it can help get them involved in the kitchen as well as helping with some lunch and dinner inspiration.



Food Waste

We’re all guilty of not always using every food item in our fridge. Balancing work, study, family life and countless other commitments can make it challenging to make sure nothing goes to waste. As a result, 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted globally each year, with three quarters of this thrown away by households [17]. Worse still, a third of all food produced globally never even reaches our kitchen tables [18].


If you’ve forgotten about the bananas sitting in your fruit bowl (again), and think it’s not the greatest waste, think again. The carbon footprint behind the bananas is one thing, but when food rots and breaks down, it releases the greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere [19]. If we stopped throwing away useable food, we could save over 36 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions [20].



Top Tip: Simply plan your meals each week and shop for what you need rather than aimlessly filling your basket with food you might eat. This will benefit both the environment and your bank account.



Another Top Tip: Pay attention to the ‘Use by’ date on a food item: this date relates to food safety. On the other hand, the “Best Before’ relates to food quality, therefore it is important to use your judgement before reaching for the bin [21].


Charities such as Fareshare and The Felix Project are doing their bit to save unused and unsold food by redistributing it to those in need. Whilst apps such as Olio and Too Good To Go help individuals save local food at a fraction of its original price!





The main message when it comes to sustainability is that your personal choice can really make a difference. If you usually order a steak when you’re at a restaurant why not make a change and opt for the fish or vegetable curry? Instead of a latte, try an oat flat white. Better still, in line with the Eatwell guide and the 5-a-day recommendation, fruit and vegetables are far more sustainable than even the lowest impact meat and dairy products [22].

Every small change and effort you make really does contribute to the greater good and help the world shift towards sustainability.






References


[1] FAO, (2023) Sustainable Food and Agriculture, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available at: https://www.fao.org/sustainability/background/en/#:~:text=FAO's%20vision%20for%20sustainable%20food,well%20as%20future%20human%20needs(Accessed 12/07/23)


[2] EAT Lancet (2019) Food Planet Health, Healthy Diets From Sustainable Food Systems. Available at: https://eatforum.org/content/uploads/2019/07/EAT-Lancet_Commission_Summary_Report.pdf (Accessed 12/07/23)


[3] Poore, J. and Nemecek, T. (2018) Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, (360), pp. 987-992. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq0216


[4] CO2 Everything (2023) Carbon Footprint: Beef. Available at: https://www.co2everything.com/co2e-of/beef(Accessed: 12/07/23)



[6] Weber, C. and Matthews, H. (2008) Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States, Environ. Sci. Technol, (42) pp. 3508 – 3513. DOI: doi.org/10.1021/es702969f


[7] Ritchie, H. (2020) You want to reduce the carbon footprint of your food? Focus on what you eat, not whether your food is local. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/food-choice-vs-eating-local (Accessed: 12/07/23)


[8] Poore, J. and Nemecek, T. (2018) Share of global food miles by transport method. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-food-miles-by-method (Accessed: 12/07/23)


[9] Wood, Z. (2021) One in three Britons drink plant-based milk as demand soars, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/sep/17/britons-drink-plant-based-milk-demand (Accessed: 12/07/23)


[10] Vanga, S. and Raghavan, V. (2018) How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk? J Food Sci Technol. (55) pp. 10-20. DOI: 10.1007/s13197-017-2915-y


[11] Stallings, V. (1997) Calcium and bone health in children: a review, Am J Ther, (4) pp. 7-8. DOI: 10.1097/00045391-199707000-00007


[12] Walther, B. et al. (2022) Comparison of nutritional composition between plant-based drinks and cow’s milk, Front Nutr. (9) DOI: 10.3389/fnut.2022.988707


[13] Smeuninx, B. et al. (2020) Amount, Source and Pattern of Dietary Protein Intake Across the Adult Lifespan: A Cross-Sectional Study, Front Nutr. (7) DOI: 10.3389/fnut.2020.00025


[14] Steinfeld, H. et al. (2006) Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=1B9LQQkm_qMC&oi=fnd&pg=PR16&ots=LP02fYeGsN&sig=g7lfYhr2R0-yYAy0pkdg2d1OeLU&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false (Accessed: 12/07/23)


[15] GOV (2018) The Eatwell Guide, Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide (Accessed: 12/07/23)


[16] BDA (2023) Seasonal frit and veg – a handy guide, Available at: https://www.bda.uk.com/food-health/your-health/sustainable-diets/seasonal-fruit-and-veg-a-handy-guide.html (Accessed: 12/07/23)


[17] WRAP (2023) Transforming the food system. Available at: https://wrap.org.uk/taking-action/food-drink(Accessed: 12/07/23)


[18] FAO (2012) Food wastage footprint & Climate Change, Available at: https://www.fao.org/3/bb144e/bb144e.pdf (Accessed: 12/07/23)


[19] Love Food hate waste (2023) Our Planet, Your Food. Available at: https://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/take-action-save-food/our-planet-your-food (Accessed: 12/07/23)



[21] Food Standards Agency (2021) Best before and use-by dates. Available at: https://www.food.gov.uk/safety-hygiene/best-before-and-use-by-dates (Accessed: 12/07/23)


[22] Gibbs, J. and Cappucio, F. (2022) Plant-Based Dietary Patterns for Human and Planetary Health, Nutrients, 14 (8), pp. 1614. DOI: 10.3390/nu14081614

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