The Environmental Impact of 27 Foods, Ranked. Chocolate Lovers, Close Your Eyes

It’s safe to say every choice you make affects the environment. It all adds up, from the type of car you drive to how much you spend on electricity every month. 

Even the food you eat can have a major impact. The hamburger you eat for lunch can affect your health and the environment. That said, some foods have a much larger carbon footprint than others.

Visual Capitalist studied which foods have the highest and lowest environmental impact. Before we move on, let us warn you: There’s a high chance some of your favorite foods rank poorly.

Tracking High-Impact Foods

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Using the source Poore and Nemecek and Our World in Data, Visual Capitalist ranked the foods that impact the environment based on their carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) measurements and water withdrawals. The higher both of these numbers are, the worse a food is for the environment.

For the purposes of its study, Visual Capitalist noted the number of liters of water withdrawal per kilogram for the top ten worst offender foods. They didn’t note water withdrawals for the entire list, which is why several foods lack this data. Furthermore, Visual Capitalist didn’t take into account the number of pesticides and other chemicals farmers use when raising their crops and animals.

While this list may seem dire for those concerned about the environment, certain alternative foods are less harmful. Experts note that plants like algae and various grains provide substantial nutrients while using fewer resources than other foods. But which of your favorite foods has the highest impact on the environment? You might be inspired to change the way you eat after seeing this ranking.

1: Beef (Beef Herd)

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  • CO2e emissions per kilogram: 99.48
  • Water withdrawal per kilogram: 1,451 liters

2: Dark Chocolate

Pile of chocolate.
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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 46.65

3: Lamb & Mutton (Dairy Herd)

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  • CO2e emissions per kilogram: 39.72
  • Water withdrawal per kilogram: 1,803 liters

4: Beef (Dairy Herd)

Cows in a pasture.
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  • CO2e emissions per kilogram: 33.30
  • Water withdrawal per kilogram: 2,714 liters

5: Coffee

Person pouring coffee.
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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 28.53

6: Farmed Prawns

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  • CO2e emissions per kilogram: 26.87
  • Water withdrawal per kilogram: 3,515 liters

7: Cheese

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  • CO2e emissions per kilogram: 23.88
  • Water withdrawal per kilogram: 5,605 liters

8: Farmed Fish

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  • CO2e emissions per kilogram: 13.63
  • Water withdrawal per kilogram: 3,691 liters

9: Pork

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  • CO2e emissions per kilogram: 12.31
  • Water withdrawal per kilogram: 1,796 liters

10: Poultry

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 9.87

11: Eggs

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 4.67

12: Rice

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  • CO2e emissions per kilogram: 4.45
  • Water withdrawal per kilogram: 2,248 liters

13: Peanuts

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  • CO2e emissions per kilogram: 3.23
  • Water withdrawal per kilogram: 1,852 liters

14: Cane Sugar

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 3.20

15: Tofu

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 3.16

16: Milk

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 3.15

17: Oatmeal

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 2.48

18: Tomatoes

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 2.09

19: Wine

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 1.79

20: Corn

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 1.70

21: Wheat & Rye

Sunrise and fog over Kansas wheat field.
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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 1.57

22: Berries & Grapes

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 1.53

23: Bananas

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 0.86

24: Potatoes

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 0.46

25: Nuts

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  • CO2e emissions per kilogram: 0.43
  • Water withdrawal per kilogram: 4,134 liters

26: Apples

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 0.43

Note: Apples tie with nuts for CO2e emissions.

27: Citrus Fruit

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CO2e emissions per kilogram: 0.39

Dark Chocolate’s Impact

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Were you as surprised as we were to see dark chocolate having the second-highest environmental impact? According to a 2019 report, producing a dark chocolate bar produces 300 grams of carbon dioxide. In comparison, one banana has a carbon dioxide footprint of around 80 grams

Dark chocolate has a sizeable impact on the environment because of the large gas emissions from producing cocoa and, in some cases, milk. Cocoa production has caused an immense amount of deforestation in West Africa. A lack of trees is speeding up climate change there because of a slower natural pollution absorption from large forests.

Furthermore, the milk some dark chocolate contains requires cattle. Keeping cows alive for dairy purposes has a considerable negative impact on the environment because of large land use and methane emissions from the animals.

Cattle Industry’s High Emissions

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Cattle used for beef consumption is the food that has the highest environmental impact for several reasons. Cows have four stomachs they use to digest food. This biological process produces a high level of methane, which is 80 times warmer than carbon dioxide and is a major threat as a greenhouse gas.

One cow creates 130 liters of methane each day. The cattle industry breeds as many as 1.5 billion cows a year. 

Experts note that shifting to a plant-rich diet can positively impact climate emissions. Beef alternatives like the Beyond Burger or the Impossible Burger have a 20 times smaller carbon footprint than regular beef. Pea, soy, and potato proteins are used in beef alternatives, which collectively have fewer emissions than beef. 

Water Consumption

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Cheese and nuts rank the worst for their water requirements. Each uses an incredible amount of water when produced. Case in point? Cheese requires twice as much water as beef production. 

Some Americans have decided to switch from regular milk to nut milk. However, nut milk production may not be the best for the environment. One single almond grown in California needs as much as 3 gallons of water. Groundwater levels where California almond farms are located have lowered considerably over the last few years, worrying many environmentalists.

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