There are so many complicated factors to choosing what to eat: health, cost, environmental impact, time, nutrition, perishability. And that's before you start thinking about what tastes good and what you actually want to eat. Making smart and ethical choices in 2019 is A LOT.
A new study from the University of Michigan has made those decisions either a little easier or a little harder, depending on your point of view: it turns out meal kits, where pre-portioned, individually-packaged ingredients are delivered to the consumer's door for them to cook themselves, are actually better for the environment than expected. In fact, meal kits have a lower carbon footprint than grocery shopping.
The study, published Monday in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, found that on average, greenhouse gas emissions in meal kit dinners were one-third lower than store-bought meals. Significantly, the study looks at the entire life cycle of a meal, "from the farm to the landfill."
That long-range focus — a "comparative life-cycle assessment" in academic-speak — is the major reason for the disparity. Meal kits involve lots of individual packaging, often much more than grocery-store food, but the environmental impact of all that plastic pales in comparison to the impact of food waste and transport.
"Our results are likely to be a surprise to many, since meal kits tend to get a bad environmental rap due to their packaging," Shelie Miller of the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems told the school's news site.
"Even though it may seem like that pile of cardboard generated from a Blue Apron or Hello Fresh subscription is incredibly bad for the environment, that extra chicken breast bought from the grocery store that gets freezer-burned and finally gets thrown out is much worse, because of all the energy and materials that had to go into producing that chicken breast in the first place."
To look at the food's environmental impacts, researchers compared the greenhouse gas emissions in five meals made from a Blue Apron meal kit (not available in Canada) and the same meal bought from a grocery store. They looked at the food's agricultural production, packaging production, distribution, supply chain losses, consumption and waste generation.
Watch: How to cut down on food waste. Story continues after video.
In the five meals they compared — salmon, cheeseburger, chicken, pasta and salad — the study found that the average grocery store version had two kilograms more CO2 emissions than the meal kit version. The cheeseburger was the only one of the five meals where the grocery store version didn't exceed the median meal kit emissions.
Because store-bought food has to be purchased in large quantities, it results in higher household food waste, the study found. Grocery meals have less packaging per meal, but larger quantities of food must be purchased, leading to higher household food waste.
"Meal kits are designed for minimal food waste," Miller explained. "So, while the packaging is typically worse for meal kits, it's not the packaging that matters most. It's food waste and transportation logistics that cause the most important differences in the environmental impacts of these two delivery mechanisms."
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The deliberate nature of the meal kits is another feature that makes them more sustainable: everything is used. Grocery stores sometimes overstock certain items and have to throw them out if they don't sell. Ugly or blemished food is also frequently thrown away.
The vehicle emissions in meal kits also save on "last-mile transportation," because they run on a delivery route. Many people drive to the grocery store and back.
Some companies are hoping to combat grocery waste by cutting down on packaging. "No-waste" stores invite customers to reuse bags and other packaging, and to choose their own portion sizes.
The meal kit industry is one of the fastest-growing segments in the Canadian marketplace, according to a 2018 study by the market research company The NPD Group. But before you run to those subscription services, keep in mind that they're also more expensive than cooking at home, and the nutritional content varies wildly. Good luck making good choices!
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