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These 10 common foods have the smallest environmental impact: study

Your favorite sugary drinks aren’t as bad for the planet as you’d think.

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Agriculture and food production have huge impacts on the environment.

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But not all foods require huge plots of land or massive quantities of water to produce, nor do they emit the same amount of greenhouse gasses in the process.

Figuring out which foods are best for the planet is key to mitigating the climate crisis.

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Writing last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a team of researchers in the UK analyzed roughly 57,000 products to determine the environmental impacts of common foods.

Previous studies have shown that the production of animal products like beef, cheese, and sausage is especially hard on the environment.

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But the point of this new study was to estimate and compare the impact of more complex, processed foods that are available on grocery store shelves.

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The researchers conducted their study in the United Kingdom, so the foods they picked mostly came from the shelves of Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain.

So what makes a food environmentally sustainable?

The researchers looked at four factors for each ingredient: greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water stress, and eutrophication potential.

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Using publicly available information on food labels and in environmental databases, they created an algorithm to give products an environmental impact score on a scale of 0 to 100 points (higher score = less sustainable).

They also compared how nutritious environmentally friendly foods are, finding that the healthiest foods are often best for the environment — with some exceptions.

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Here are the 10 most environmentally friendly food categories, according to the study:

10. Yogurt and some dairy products

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Yogurt got a relatively low score on environmental impact scale: 1.54.

It’s marginally healthier and more environmentally friendly than other dairy products like milk, eggs, and butter, which were grouped into the same category and got an environmental score of 1.69.

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9. Meat alternatives

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The environmental impact of meat alternatives is drastically lower than red meats.

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Beef and lamb products were grouped together and got an environmental impact score of 34.72.

Comparatively, meat alternatives clocked it at just 1.57.

8. Dairy Alternatives

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Ekaterina Fedotova / 500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images

Even better for the environment were dairy alternatives, which got an environmental score of 1.37.

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Comparatively, cheese got a whopping environmental impact score of 7.58.

7. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts

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It’s probably no surprise that fresh fruits and vegetables ranked as some of the healthiest categories on the list.

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They’re also pretty good for the environment.

Fresh fruits and nuts, which were in the same category, got an environmental score of 1.33. And vegetables got a score of 1.31.

6. Olives, pickles, chutney, and antipasti

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These four foods were grouped into the same “aisle” for the analysis.

Together, they got an environmental score of 0.97.

5. Bread and rolls

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Overall, breads and rolls ranked as one of the healthiest food categories on the list.

They also had an environmental score of 0.92.

While other bready foods such as wraps, naan, and pitas were in a separate category, they had an even better environmental score of 0.85.

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4. Sauces and dressings

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Though they’re not the healthiest foods on the list, sauces, marinades, and dressings ranked at 0.87 for environmental impact.

3. Juices and Smoothies

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These sweet beverages got a 0.70 rating on the environmental impact score.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, they outscored other drink categories like sodas and sports drinks on the nutrition front.

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2. Frozen fries, potatoes, onion rings, and rice

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StockFood/Foodcollection/Getty Images

These foods were grouped together for the analysis, and got an overall environmental score of 0.56 — one of the lowest on the chart.

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They did well on the nutritional scale too, ranking as one of the healthiest categories in the analysis.

1. Fizzy drinks and soda

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They’re delicious and have a comparatively measly environmental impact score: just 0.22.

Sports and energy drinks were the only products that had a lower environmental score: 0.21.

But neither category scored very high on the nutritional front, thanks to their composition of mostly sugar and water.

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