We’ve all seen those YouTube videos and blog posts where a fast food cheeseburger is left to rot but never does. The highly-processed food products from places like McDonalds just kind of get dusty rather than degrade. You would think it has to be the worst for the environment, right? You obviously couldn’t put a Happy Meal in your compost pile. But a new study from France reveals that though some healthy foods are better for the environment, identifying “low carbon” foods isn’t quite that simple.
The study, “Identifying Sustainable Foods: The Relationship between Environmental Impact, Nutritional Quality, and Prices of Foods Representative of the French Diet,” sought to determine the carbon footprint of popular foods, or just how bad foods were for the environment, and compare that with their nutrition profile and price.
“Identifying foods more likely to be part of healthy and low-carbon diets could be an effective way to help consumers in their daily choices,” said Gabriel Masset, lead author of the study.
Using a French dietary study, the research team looked at the 391 foods most commonly consumed by people between the ages of 18 and 79. Then, they analyzed the environmental impact of the foods—based on greenhouse gas emissions, ion buildup in water systems, and emissions that lead to acid rain—and also looked at nutritional quality and cost.
Not surprisingly, as other studies have found, the researchers determined animal products to have the biggest negative environmental impact. Though fruits and vegetables offered the best health benefits at the lowest environmental costs, both produce and meat products tend to be more expensive. Legumes and grains also had low environmental impact.
Sugary, processed foods with little health benefits had average-to-low environmental impact, and were cheap to boot. This last fact put a damper in the lofty thought that those foods that are best for us are best for the environment.
“Our results highlighted that it would be overly simplistic and misleading to affirm that low-carbon foods and diets are healthier,” Masset said.
“People should be aware that foods of animal origin, despite being essential sources of nutrients, do have a higher carbon footprint than plant-based foods,” he added.
The researchers concluded that for the sake of the environment, a diet with less (or no) animal products may be best. Further, they say, we need to start thinking not only of the effects of our diets on our waistlines, but how our food choices impact the world around us.