Take a closer look at your dinner plate, Swedish researchers suggest, because what you eat has a bigger impact on the environment than you might realize. A new computer program promises to help us choose foods that aren’t just healthy and delicious, but also are produced in a way that minimizes greenhouse-gas emissions.

Annika Carlsson-Kanyama, an associate professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, led the team of researchers that recently developed MenuTool, an online database that calculates the energy required to produce, transport and cook some of our most common foods. By choosing among ready-made recipes or creating their own, users can instantly compare the energy efficiency of different meals, an interactive feature Carlsson-Kanyama thinks is crucial.

“Our goal is to make it easier for commercial-scale kitchens, school children and interested households to see what environmental impact various meals have, and for them to relate that information to their own food choices and diets,” she said.

Producing animal-based foods is more detrimental to the environment than producing grains and vegetables, and meat production, especially the kind that involves grain-fed cattle, is a big culprit when it comes to emitting greenhouse gases. Substituting leguminous plants for meat and fish, or at least reducing the meat servings, is critical for an environmentally-friendly diet, according to the researchers.

“In the West, we over-consume protein, and that’s not necessary for a healthy diet. By stepping down in the food chain, we save energy,” Carlsson-Kanyama said.

If you had a 16-ounce rib-eye steak with French fries and a side of hothouse tomatoes last night, you left a significantly bigger environmental footprint than if you would have chosen a chickpea casserole with a slice of bread and an orange instead.

A few clicks of the mouse is all it takes for MenuTool to calculate that the energy required to produce and cook the casserole only amounts to 7 mega-joules per serving, compared with a staggering 40 mega-joules for the steak dinner. (One joule is approximately the energy required to lift a small apple one meter off the ground, and one mega-joule equals one million joules.) But by cutting the steak to 12 ounces, changing the French fries to a baked potato and substituting iceberg lettuce for the hothouse tomatoes, the program shows us that the energy consumption can be cut in half. 

MenuTool is still a prototype and the website is currently only available in Swedish, although Carlsson-Kanyama said creating an English version is a priority. She and her research team also hope to find a financier that will continue to develop the program. The Swedish Consumer Agency, a government agency that assists the public with consumer affairs, has already shown interest.

“I think it’s an excellent way to reach out to people,” said Ingela Dahlin, an official with the agency. “You get immediate feedback

that your behavior matters.”

MenuTool created a buzz when it was launched in Sweden, where global warming is the dominating environmental issue, and Carlsson-Kanyama has since been overrun with requests from people who want to try the program. Ultimately, she hopes it will trigger enough public interest to force food producers and distributors to disclose how their products affect the climate. Just like organic goods are labeled to help consumers select food produced without pesticides, declaring the energy consumption required to produce, say a packet of pasta, would empower consumers to choose products with the least negative effect on the climate.

“I don’t think the producers will do it on their own accord, but they will do it if there’s enough pressure from the consumers,” Carlsson-Kanyama said.

Until then, your best bet is to buy locally and seasonally, and eat your vegetables.

Story by Linda McGurk. This article originally appeared in Plenty in January 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Carbon du jour
A new online database will help you figure out your favorite food's impact on the environment.