The environmental impact of junk food


In this episode, Wes and I discuss the environmental impact of consuming junk food. Yes, your Mars bar is destroying the planet. Together we delve into food sustainability and the problem with global importing and exporting of food. We also explore the idea of veganism and vegetarianism. Is giving up meat the only solution to reducing green house gas missions from our diets.

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Podcast summary

01.56 Today we’re going to talk about the environmental impact of following a bad diet, specifically, the environmental impact of eating junk food.

02.15 I was at a conference last month listening to Professor Manny Noakes, who works in the nutrition and research department at the CSIRO. She spoke about green house gas emissions and food choices. She released a study on this back in 2014 Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the Australian Diet. Source

02.56 In this study, it was found that the average Australian diet produced 14.5kg of carbon dioxide equivalents per person per day. This was based on the average intake obtained from the 1995 National Nutrition survey, which we know is a little out-dated, but it’s the best data we have at the moment.

03.29 The Aussie diet carbon emissions, in comparison to the average diet in the UK, are significantly higher. The UK average diet only produces 7.4kg of carbon emissions per person per day. Source

03.57 The CSIRO then looked at the average Aussie diet again, and compared it against a “foundation diet”. The foundation diet is simply a diet model using the recommendations in the Australian Guidelines to Healthy Eating.

04.20 What they found is that diets based on the AGHE could lower green house gas emissions by 25% than the current average diet, whilst still maintaining nutrient quality of the diet for good health.

Green house gas emissions

Graphic Source

05.09 Discretionary food intake or non-core food adds an additional 25% in the total production of green house gases. Not only will consumption of junk food increase medical costs, through the flow on effects of ill health and subsequent hospitalisations, it’s also destroying the environment.

06.17 The CSIRO also looked at the impact of obesity on green house gases. In a population with a 40% obesity rate, it requires 19% more food to maintain that level of obesity. That ultimately means more environmental pollution to maintain a weight that is not necessarily that great for your health. Not only do we have a health crisis we are now facing an environmental food crisis because of this.

07.45 These types of studies are so important right now because we are experiencing climate change and experts are predicting worldwide food shortages in 20 years time. This food shortage thought to be created by climate change, increasing demand for food because of growing populations and destruction of farming land. 

What is discretionary food?

08.36 Discretionary food is the technical term for junk food. It’s also called and non-core foods.

09.19 The 5 core food groups are; grains, dairy and dairy alternatives, meat and meat alternatives, vegetables, fruit, fats and oils. Anything that falls outside of this; alcohol, chocolate, sweets, soft drink, chips, cakes, biscuits, Maccas and KFC etc are called discretionary foods.

09.33 They are typically ultra processed, high in energy, fat, salt, sugar or a combination of all. They contribute a lot of energy, but not much nutrients to the diet and they aren’t needed.

09.51 I’d like to clarify; I’m an advocate of not cutting out any foods and also not depriving yourself. So whilst I don’t view junk food or sugar as evil, there is a huge difference between enjoying a slice of cake once a month for someone’s birthday or the odd drink on the weekend, compared to eating these foods every day.

My first example of having fun food on a special occasion if you feel like it. This is an example of moderation. I see eating discretionary food on a daily basis as indulgent and bad for your health.

11.05 In todays podcast you’re going to find out that junk food is also one of the biggest unnecessary contributors of green house gases.

Are healthier diets are better for the environment? 

11.25 Following a healthier diet in Australia will help lower green house gas missions. It’s a careful balance of not eating as much as we do (eating less in general) and choosing food items that have less impact on the environment.

12.15 By simply cutting out junk food and starting to eat according to the Dietary Guidelines it will cut green house gasses by a quarter.

12.29 The reason why our green house gases won’t fall further than this is because some of the highest contributors to green house gas emission are the meat and dairy industry.

12.37 In France, researchers have analysed different diet types such as; vegan and vegetarianism, only to find out the reverse was true. Poor quality diets, those that had less fruit and vegetables and more sweet and salty snacks had lower green house gas emissions then healthier diets. The difference between the diets was healthier diets produce 9% more GHGe for males and 22% more for females. Source.

13.52 Researchers theorised that because meat and diary are big sources of nutrients, people would have to eat a lot more plant based foods to gain the same amount of nutrients. Thus having a larger impact on the environment because they’re eating more produce.

14.20 I might add that this may also be a case of dietary context within countries. Australians tend to consume higher meat and dairy based diets than Europeans. So turning vegan or vegetarian might have little if no effect on green house gas production if you’re living in a different country than Australia. 

How much do people spend on junk food?

15.40 Ordinary Australian households consume show that most households spend more money on unhealthy diets, than healthy ones. On average households spend 53-64% of the total food budget on discretionary choices, which include takeaway and alcohol. Source

16.46 To me this seems like a big waste of money and resources that is not only costing you more money at the supermarket, but also in medical costs when you get sick. We know what diets play a huge role in the health and wellbeing of individuals, regardless of their weight status.

17.03 Simply by eating healthier, as in cutting out junk food, even without losing weight, can reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer a 2013 study had shown. 

What are green house gas emissions?

17.57 Green house gas emissions are gases that contribute to global warming. You might be more familiar with carbon dioxide produced from cars by the combustion of petrol.

18.15 In the food chain, methane and nitrous oxide are the biggest contributors to green house gasses. Animals, mostly cows, produce methane. Another gas that is produced in agriculture is called nitrous oxide, which is produced by fertilizers used to feed crops, like vegetables. Source

18.56 Agriculture is one thing, but the gas produced from the production of highly processed food is huge.

“CSIRO estimates that junk food is one of the highest contributors to food-related greenhouse gas emission, accounting for up to 27% of the 14.5kg of diet-related greenhouse gas emissions produced by the average Australian each day.” Source

The environmental impact of making chocolate

20.05 With junk food it’s not only the farming and sourcing of cheap sugar and fats that’s an issue, but also the environmental impact of factory production and transportation of these products.

20.35 The cocoa is often farmed in 3rd world countries where plantations can some times only last a season. There’s a huge amount of water and fertiliser that go into producing a cocoa crop. At the end of every season there is the potential for plantations to be bulldozed down if the farmer doesn’t not make enough money to pay back money used to farm the land, including fertilisers and equipment. When plantations are not profitable, there are always new people to try again on another stretch of land hoping to make money for their family. Due to global trade big food companies import and source cocoa from many third world countries around the world and seek the cheapest price.

This means in many parts of the world cocoa plantations are bulldozed down after a few seasons because farmers can not make money or companies choose to source cocoa from cheaper alternatives.  At present the cocoa industry, at least in Africa, still use child labour to keep costs low.

The process of sourcing cheap product is not only a human rights problem, it’s an environmental problem. More farm land is cleared and trees destroyed all in the name of big business.

21.23 When the crop is harvested the cocoa beans are transported to a factory within the same country for processing or directly to Australia. This transportation uses natural resources (petrol) via plane or boat and of course produces carbon dioxide.

21.56 When arriving to Australia there are the milk solids that need to be sourced to make milk chocolate. Milk is produced by the dairy industry. Dairy and meat are the highest contributors of green house gases due to the cows producing methane.

22.13 Lastly sugar also needs to be added to the chocolate mix. In Australia cane sugar is cheap and can be sourced from QLD for example, this has to be shipped and transported to the chocolate making factory.

22.32 Then we have production aspect of chocolate. In the factory the ingredients are mixed together, wrappers printed and sealed with the chocolate inside. They’re then packaged into boxes. You then purchase a plain milk chocolate from the supermarket for a measly $3-4.

22.50 If you are doing you’re grocery shopping you put the chocolate bar in a plastic bag and then you get in your car and drive home (using petrol and creating more green house gases), throw the wrapper in the bin (which goes into landfill) and gobble the chocolate bar in the matter of seconds. Usually people eat chocolate as a snack, and don’t really need it, as in, a lot of people have a few kilos to lose.

23.14 Thinking about the entire process of production and the environmental impact of eating more than we need; do we really need to be eating chocolate bars on a regular basis?

23.32 At least if you buy meat from a butcher, there’s only a few steps; the farm, abettor, butcher and your home. Buy local! It cuts out all the middle steps and not so much packaging waste.

24.24 In addition, you can work on eliminating the plastic bags you carry them home with if you use a material bag. (Which I try to do when I remember!)

24.44 No food is immune from producing green house gases and that’s what we have to remember every action we make, has a reaction. Unless we starve and don’t do anything we are going to produce green house gases in one way or another.

25.16 I found an American article on the environmental impact of eating a cheeseburger. There’s “Somewhere between 1 kilogram and 3.5 kilograms of energy-based carbon dioxide emissions are produced per cheeseburger:”

25.55 Now if we include the methane from the cows used to produce the beef patty. The article reads…

“Over a cows lifetime, it produces 220 kilos of methane. Since a single kilo of methane is the equivalent of 23 kilos of carbon dioxide, a single beef cow produces a bit more than 5,000 CO2-equivalent kilograms of methane over its life.

A typical beef cow produces approximately 500 lbs of meat  (226kg) for boneless steaks and ground beef. If we assume that the typical burger is a quarter-pound (110g) of pre-cooked meat, that’s 2,000 burgers per cow. Dividing the methane total by the number of burgers, then, we get about 2.6 CO2-equivalent kilograms of additional greenhouse gas emissions from methane, per burger.” Source

Is being vegetarian or vegan better for the environment?

Being vegetarian or vegan maybe better for the environment in regards to lowering green house gas emissions (GHGe) in Australia at least, maybe not in other parts of the world as previously discussed.

Understandably not everyone wants to be vegan or vegetarian, and that’s ok. I personally only eat meat on occasion and tend towards a vegetarian style of eating most of the time.

28.45 That’s a personal preference, and for me cultural. In my family we were never big meat eaters and my grandmother always cooked with legumes. So that’s what I enjoy eating.

29.26 It may not be a suitable choice for everyone though, especially the elderly and malnourished, who have heightened requirements for zinc, iron and protein. Changing to a plant based diet is an option, but not imperative to create change to your environmental impact.

30.10 Of course not everyone is going to agree with that, but my job here is not to force people into doing things they don’t want to do. My job is to provide people with options and show you a holistic view of the evidence.

Dietary styles need to suit the individual. If you want to be more environmentally friendly with your diet try the following;

  • Simply eating less in general of all food groups.
  • Eat less junk food, in other words stop eating non-core food groups
  • Reduce your current meat consumption, especially processed meat.
  • Reduce food waste.

30.50 In Australia, according to the latest national survey Australia’s overeat meat in general. Males eat on average 2.3 (150g) serves daily and females 1.7 (110g) serves. I should add a serve is 65g of cooked steak, for example.

31.28 Males are hitting their daily meat intake quite easily, whereas females fall short of the 2.5 recommended serves for adults. The problem is however, that people aren’t eating lean quality meats, Australians consume more processed meats than what we are supposed to.

32.00 Processed meats include; salami, bacon, ham, sausages and mince patties. Australians are on average eating 0.5 serves of processed meats daily. Sausages accounted for 14% of the total processed meat intake.

32.36 The guidelines recommend that we do not excess 455g of red meat from all sources on a weekly basis for health reasons, such as bowel cancer risk. On average people are eating 565g on a weekly basis. This is 24% higher than what is recommended. Source

33.41 Nutritionally lean meats are rich sources of protein, iodine, B12, zinc and iron. But processed meats are very high in fat, salt and often contain carcinogenic preservatives called nitrates.

We are definitely eating more processed meat than we need, which is problematic in terms of environmental impact and health.

34.08 Healthier products such as dairy and daily alternatives are under consumed. Dairy consumption falls to 1.5 serves per day, which is less than the 2-3 that’s recommended throughout the lifespan. It’s supposed to be 3 serves of dairy for kids, teens and female adults above 51years or 71 years for males. That’s 93.6% of people not meeting their intake of dairy.

34.43 At the moment the environmental impact of dairy isn’t that great because we aren’t actually consuming that much of it. We aren’t meeting recommended nutrient intakes anyway. Source

35.38 This has a health impact on bones and teeth. It would actually help the health of individuals to include an additional serve of dairy, or dairy alternatives like almond, soy or almond milk fortified in calcium.

I know what our vegan and vegetarian friends are going to say, lets just give up meat and dairy entirely to reduce green house gas emissions. Well, the problem with that is that studies that have been conducted overseas don’t show that type of suggestion to be that useful in all circumstances.

36.35 In one particular study they looked at the idea of replacing red meat with white meat. This study showed at 9% reduction in GHGe, but this type of diet fell short on its vitamin A and zinc intake. Source

38.01 In another study, they replaced all meat and dairy with plant alternatives. This reduced GHGe by 22%. The nutrition quality of the diet then changed to be lower in protein and higher in fat than meat containing diets. It was suggested that this wasn’t a favourable in terms of health outcomes. Source

38.32 In another European study they suggested that any reductions in meat consumption and GHGe savings would be countered by intakes and food production from eating more fish, cereal and vegetables. So there would be no changes to environmental impact. Source

38.51 I should add, that every countries food chain is different. So this may be the case in Europe, but currently in the Australian context giving up meat maybe a more viable option.

Reducing GHGe from diets is not just about making radical changes to the food supply, but also ensuring peoples health and nutrient intakes aren’t compromised.

39.11 Besides, I don’t think telling people to turn vegan or vegetarian is a message people will swallow easily. I like to look at things more pragmatically. Despite what people believe GHGe can be reduced without making drastic changes to diet style.

39.33 Researchers suggest at 10% reduction in total intake of all foods, could reduce GHGe by 10%. This may be more accepted and easy to do without comprising certain nutrients or food groups. Source

40.01 So by eating less and eating less junk food you can reduce your green house gas production by almost 35%. That’s huge and you can still enjoy the occasional steak, if you want to.

40.32 If you’re already vegan or vegetarian or you’re thinking of changing your diet towards this style, you can further decrease your environmental impact by reducing the packaging of the food you consume.

For example;

  • Eat less, remember plants still require the use of fertilisers to grow producing nitrous oxide. Even farms producing organically grown plants, still use organic fertilisers, which also produce nitrous oxide.
  • Purchase food items that aren’t packed into styrofoam containers or plastics.
  • Buy from local farmers markets rather than large supermarket chains,
  • Reduce your food waste
  • Compost plant waste.

42.16 If you are vegan or vegetarian ensure you are getting enough nutrients from a range of plant-based foods so you don’t end up with deficiencies. You might want to get a regular blood test done with your doctor yearly or 6monthly to check for calcium, iron, B12 and vitamin D.

These are common ‘at risk’ nutrients when following these diet styles and in the population general. See a dietitian if you need help planning out an appropriate diet to meet your needs.

Food waste is a problem for green house gases emissions

43.12 We have talked would food waste on this podcast before and I have also wrote about it extensively on my blog. If you want to go back and check out the blog post What a Waste!

Food waste is simply good food that is being thrown out. For example when you fill up your fridge with vegetables with the best intention to eat them, but then you let them go off and you have to throw it out. That’s food waste.

43.50 Food waste or organic waste is waste from vegetable off cuts or fruit peelings. People think this type of waste is ok because it’s bio-degradable, but the truth to the matter is vegetable trimmings contribute to green house gas emissions.

44.20 If organic waste goes to landfill, they undergo decomposition anaerobically (lack of oxygen) and there isn’t as many microorganisms or worms to break it down. This process generates methane, (remember methane is what cows produce), which is bad for the environment. Methane is 20% times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of green house gas pollution. Source

44.52 In other words, rubbish tips are the worst for breaking down waste, even organic waste. Rubbish tips produce harmful green house gases.

On a larger scale, in Australia we also have a lot of food waste at the farming level. Farms who produce imperfect fruit or vegetable go through the entire process of harvesting; planting the seeds, fertilizing and watering. All of which uses water, pollutes the earth with fertilizers some times even pesticides. When the crop is ready for harvest fruit or vegetables are picked and ready for packing and shipping.

45.36 If the fruit or vegetables aren’t to specifications of Woolworths or Coles, or if these companies buy produce cheaply from overseas, Australian farmers leave their produce to rot on the farm. Source.

46.12 What a terrible waste of food. Especially because cheap imports typically come from poorer countries, were there are food security problems with poorer people. Instead, fruit and vegetables are grown cheaply and sent overseas, destroying our own market and the lives of farmers here.

There are other major contributors to GHGe and this includes; production, transport, storage and cooking of food.

What can you do to save the planet from junk food?

  • Stop buying junk food and processed meats.
  • Consuming less food in general
  • Compost your scraps
  • Plan your meals to reduce food waste
  • Buy local produce
  • Recycle wrappers were possible

48.45 And there’s much more you can do about reducing your eco-foot print that is related and unrelated to food. We covered some broader issues in podcast episode titled Eco-Friendly Round Table.


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