Carbon footprint and nutritional quality of different human dietary choices.


González-García S, Esteve-Llorens X, Moreira MT, Feijoo G.

Year Published: 



Sci Total Environ.


Study Design: 


Apart from industrial activities, our eating habits also have a significant environmental cost associated with crop cultivation, manufacturing processes, packaging, refrigeration, transport cooking and waste management. In a context of growing social awareness of the role of different dietary choices in the environment, the review of different alternatives on the road to a healthy and sustainable diet should integrate relevant information on the nutritional quality of different eating habits. Since dietary choices have an effect on environmental sustainability and human health, a literature review on different dietary choices has been conducted to determine the differences in carbon footprint and nutritional quality identifying the main hotspots trying to give advice towards the identification of sustainable diets. After applying a set of criteria for reference selection, 21 peer-reviewed studies have been analysed in detail, allowing the comparison of 66 dietary scenarios. We identified that the so-called Mediterranean and Atlantic diets present high nutritional scores and low carbon footprints. On the contrary, the dietary choices identified in northern and Western Europe, as well as in the United States, have the highest carbon footprints, highlighting the contribution of dairy products as a basic source of high-quality nutrients and protein. Broadly speaking, dietary choices rich in vegetables (e.g., vegan, vegetarian as well as Indian and Peruvian) have a better environmental profile than those rich in meat (mainly ruminant meat). In line with these findings, the shift in meat consumption habits from beef and veal to chicken, pork and poultry, the introduction of alternative foods to animal protein (e.g. quinoa) and the consumption of olive oil as a major source of vegetable oil may be compatible with a healthier and more environmentally friendly diet. However, the complete elimination of meat and dairy products from the daily diet may not be feasible in case the supply of some micronutrients (e.g., calcium and vitamin D) is not guaranteed. Limitations were identified in the consulted studies related to the consideration of the different system boundaries, as well as underlying uncertainties related to data sources. Therefore, efforts should be made to develop consistent and agreed-upon methods for estimating both the carbon footprint and nutritional quality scores.