Greenhouse gas emissions of realistic dietary choices in Denmark: the carbon footprint and nutritional value of dairy products

Louise Bruun Werner, Anna Flysjö, Tine Tholstrup
Food & Nutrition Research 2014, 58

BACKGROUND: Dairy products are important in a healthy diet due to their high nutritional value; they are, however, associated with relatively large greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) per kg product. When discussing the need to reduce the GHGE caused by the food system, it is crucial to consider the nutritional value of alternative food choices.

OBJECTIVE: The objective of this study was to elucidate the role of dairy products in overall nutrition and to clarify the effects of dietary choices on GHGE, and to combine nutritional value and GHGE data.

METHODS: We created eight dietary scenarios with different quantity of dairy products using data from the Danish National Dietary Survey (1995-2006). Nutrient composition and GHGE data for 71 highly consumed foods were used to estimate GHGE and nutritional status for each dietary scenario. An index was used to estimate nutrient density in relation to nutritional recommendation and climate impact for solid food items; high index values were those with the highest nutrient density scores in relation to the GHGE.

RESULTS: The high-dairy scenario resulted in 27% higher protein, 13% higher vitamin D; 55% higher calcium; 48% higher riboflavin; and 18% higher selenium than the non-dairy scenario. There was a significant correlation between changes in calcium and changes in vitamin D, selenium, and riboflavin content (P=0.0001) throughout all of the diets. The estimated GHGE for the dietary scenario with average-dairy consumption was 4,631 g CO2e/day.

CONCLUSIONS: When optimizing a diet with regard to sustainability, it is crucial to account for the nutritional value and not solely focus on impact per kg product. Excluding dairy products from the diet does not necessarily mitigate climate change but in contrast may have nutritional consequences.

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