On the Table

Diet can affect the planet's health

CORRESPONDENTApril 20, 2011 

You may be a pro at checking the nutrient facts labels on the foods you eat. You may be in the habit of looking at the ingredient lists, too.

If so, great. And someday soon, you may be adding another factor to your food decisions: You'll be checking your carbon "food-print."

That day has already come in some parts of the world.

Sweden two years ago was the first country to test a system of flagging foods in grocery stores and restaurants to show their carbon emissions scores and contributions to climate change. Other countries, including the U.K. and Japan, have followed.

The premise is this: Everything we eat has an energy cost and an effect on the environment. Lots of variables factor in, including whether the food is of plant or animal origin, differences in soil or animal feed used, other production and processing methods, and the ways foods are transported and sold.

The net result is that everything you eat contributes a certain amount to carbon emissions or greenhouse gases. The more greenhouse gases your food choice contributes, the higher its food-print or carbon rating and the greater its contribution to problems in the environment, including global warming.

In Sweden, the government expects that mandatory climate labeling of foods will eventually reduce greenhouse gas emissions in that country by 20 percent to 50 percent.

Most of the savings will come by eating less meat, including beef, lamb, pork and chicken. Animal agriculture, including dairy farming, makes the most intensive use of natural resources and is responsible for the largest portion of greenhouse gas production.

And despite the fact that fish is a healthier choice, the Swedish government is not recommending greater fish consumption because of the European and worldwide depletion of fish populations.

Instead, the government is encouraging everyone to eat smaller portions of meat and more meatless meals.

Climate ratings for foods are the latest in the trend toward more transparency in food labeling.

In the U.S., that includes the addition of trans fat levels to food labels several years ago, nutrition labeling on restaurant menus, and the push to report the geographical source - local or distant - of the foods we eat.

Adding a score for climate-friendliness would be a laudable next step to help consumers evaluate the effect of their food choices. What you eat affects not only your own health but the health of the planet, too.

Steps we can take

In recommendations to the European Union, the Swedish National Food Administration recommended several key diet changes to minimize the burden on the environment. They include:

Buying locally grown fruits and vegetables in season, pesticide-free when possible.

Favoring fibrous vegetables such as root vegetables (beets, potatoes, turnips), broccoli, onions, and white cabbage. These foods can be grown locally much of the year and keep longer without spoiling than many other vegetables.

Eating more beans, lentils and peas, whether canned, frozen, or cooked from dried. They're especially valuable when they replace meat in meals.

Paying attention to how you handle fruits and vegetables. Store them properly so that they keep as long as possible without going bad.

Inefficiencies from food waste burden the environment. Buy less, even if it means shopping more often for perishable foods.

And keep focusing on good nutrition. The convenient truth is that, for the most part, the foods that are best for your health are also best for the planet.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net.

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