How to grocery shop to help the environment

Buying vegan or vegetarian food isn’t the only way. These three small changes can also make a big difference, says a recent study.

Going vegan or vegetarian is one way to decrease your diet’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions—but it isn’t the only way. A recent Purdue University study suggests that smaller tweaks can make a difference too, while improving your health.

After analyzing the 2010 grocery purchases of more than 57,000 U.S. households, Purdue researchers found 71 percent could shrink their food carbon footprint by making three changes:

Skip the unhealthy snacks

Avoiding foods with high calorie counts and low nutritional value can reduce the total carbon footprint of U.S. household food consumption by nearly 10 percent. Items like candy, soda, and packaged snacks take more ingredients and more processing, which translates to higher environmental impacts.

Watch bulk buys

Households of one or two people may end up with food waste when they try to save money with bulk buys. Before you buy supersize, consider whether a three-pound jar of peanut butter will go bad before it’s used up.

Trim ready-made foods

One average microwave meal may not have a very large carbon footprint. But buying them regularly can add up to significant emissions because ready-made foods’ large sales volume amplifies their carbon emissions, the study found.

Seemingly small shopping shifts can add up: By making the above changes, the U.S. could cut more than a quarter of emissions from household food consumption, the researchers say. That’s about 36 million metric tons—about what 6.6 million households generate in a year of electricity use. “Collective action can make a huge impact,” says study co-author Hua Cai.

For more stories about how to help the planet, go to natgeo.com/planet.

This story appears in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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