Choosing Food Based on Greenhouse Gas Score a Bad Idea

Oct. 4, 2007
Choosing food based on a greenhouse gas score is a bad idea, says Editor Dave Fusaro, in this month's Editor's Plate column.

Sure, I want to be as green as possible, as green as the next guy. But there's a movement under way in Europe -- which I used to think was the source of many great new food ideas -- that I hope never makes its way to this side of the Atlantic. It could literally be the death of us.

The past month saw the most media coverage I've noticed on the subject of food products touting their greenhouse gas scores, although that subject has been just below the radar for most of this year. The good environmental intentions are clearly outweighed by the dangers of obesity resulting from misdirected food choices.

It seems food labels are popping up in England with information on how the overall product contributes to global warming. In a report I saw on ABC news, one bag of Walkers Crisps -- that's their way of saying potato chips -- created 75g of carbon emissions. That supposedly takes everything imaginable into account, from the growing of the potatoes through the cooking process, the transportation and all the way through to the disposal of the packaging.

First, I gotta question the science and mathematics behind these calculations. It's not the work of Walkers, one of Britain's leading snack brands, although the report pointed out Walkers was the first food processor to use the approved labeling. The figures are those of the government-funded Carbon Trust. How they can accurately figure this cradle-to-grave contribution to global warming is beyond me.

The intent is pure enough. As Walkers' CEO said in the news report, it's useful information -- let people decide what weight to assign it and how to react. But when 75g of carbon emissions weighs more heavily in buying decisions than 150 calories per serving or 9g of total fat, then a lot of people are going to weigh more heavily.

For better or worse, Innocent Drinks (great name for what's coming) is another British firm that's taking part in the carbon labeling program. The company's mango-passion fruit smoothie, which has less fat and fewer calories than the chips (I mean crisps) and many healthy ingredients, nevertheless contributes four times the carbon. The main reason is the mangoes have to be shipped from India and other locales thousands of miles away, and packaging contributes to the bad score as well.

The ABC report said: "In Britain, food production and consumption add one-third of a ton of carbon to the atmosphere per household per year. Recreation, such as driving to a soccer game, contributes a ton. Home heating and electricity add another two tons. If that sounds like a lot, the average American household contributes twice as much carbon per year."

So food is a tiny drop in the greenhouse gas bucket. You Brits could stop driving to the soccer games and walk instead. Or lower the thermostat. No, better to choose food based on its carbon footprint, rather than its healthfulness, that way you can doubly contribute to a healthier Earth. Not only will consumers be choosing food that minimally clears the air, but there will be fewer people to pollute the planet, thanks to obesity-related mortality.

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