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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2021

Multi-criteria evaluation of plant-based foods -use of environmental footprint and LCA data for consumer guidance

Potter, Hanna Karlsson; Roos, Elin


Many consumers are willing to move to a more plant-based diet, as is apparent from the increasing demand for plant-based protein sources on many markets. There is scientific evidence that such diets are associated with lower environmental impacts, especially climate impact, land use, and energy use. However, all food production affects the environment, and there is scope for more sustainable food choices even among plant-based foods. We present a method for environmental multi-criteria evaluation of plant-based products to enable communication through a consumer guide, which was developed in cooperation with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Sweden and involves a real-life case of implementation. The guide included 90 products, divided into five product groups. Four environmental impact categories were evaluated (climate impact, biodiversity impact, water use, pesticide use), to give a fuller, more complex picture of potential environmental impacts of plant-based products than when evaluating only one impact category, such as climate impact. Available environmental footprint data and LCA data adapted for the specific consumer market (Sweden) were used. A method for calculating absolute sustainability thresholds for single products was developed, based on newly published global sustainability boundaries for the food system (Willett et al., 2019). To account for the different dietary functions of food, different thresholds for evaluating different food groups were applied, thus accounting for the role, and to some extent the nutrient content, of different food products. This enabled evaluation of foods based on the same grounds, i.e., using the global sustainability boundaries and the same functional unit for all food products (1 kg of food at a store in Sweden), while visualizing differences in environmental impacts of products within a certain food group. This revealed the best choice of protein sources, vegetables, etc. The method provides a way to use large amounts of data of varying quality, and reduces the complexity in evaluating the environmental impacts of food. It therefore hopefully facilitates sustainable plant-based food choices, for more environmentally sustainable food consumption. (C) 2020 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd.


Environmental impact; Vegetarian food; Consumer communication; Consumer guide

Published in

Journal of Cleaner Production
2021, Volume: 280, article number: 124721