Convenience with a conscience?

01 May 2019

meal kits

Meal kit services, which deliver a box of pre-portioned ingredients and a chef-selected recipe to your door, have earned a bad environmental reputation due to perceived packaging waste. Contrarily, a new study from University of Michigan has revealed that meal kits do in fact have a “much lower overall carbon footprint” than ingredients for the same meals purchased at a grocery store, despite using more packaging material. Findings of the study were published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling.

Average greenhouse gas emissions were found to be one-third lower for meal kit dinners than the store-bought meals, when every step in the process – from the farm to the landfill – were considered in the research.

The researchers note that while meal kits use large amounts of packaging, less food items are used per boxed meal. And while grocery meals use less packaging per meal, larger quantities of ingredients are often purchased by consumers – leading to higher household food waste. Additionally, grocery stores tend to overstock food items due to the difficulty in predicting customer demand, while removing blemished or unappealing foods that may not appeal to shoppers.

“So, while the packaging is typically worse for meal kits, it’s not the packaging that matters most,” says Shelie Miller of the U-M Center for Sustainable Systems in the School for Environment and Sustainability, Senior Author of the study. “It’s food waste and transportation logistics that cause the most important differences in the environmental impacts of these two delivery mechanisms. ”The researchers note that while meal kits use large amounts of packaging, less food items are used per boxed meal. 

“The way consumers purchase and receive food is undergoing substantial transformation, and meal kits are likely to be part of it in some way,” says first author Brent Heard, who conducted the research for his doctoral dissertation at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability

Sustainability and convenience across the board

In the assessment of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, researchers looked at recipes for five two-person meals (salmon, cheeseburger, chicken, pasta and salad), which were sourced and prepared from both a meal kit service and a grocery store. Meal kits were purchased from US meal kit service Blue Apron.

Levels of GHG emissions were estimated for each major step in the timeline of the food production and packaging process, including agricultural farming, packaging production, distribution, supply chain losses, consumption and waste generation.

This type of cradle-to-grave impacts study is called a comparative life-cycle assessment. Greenhouse gas estimates, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per meal (CO2e/meal) were based on values found in previously published studies.

The U-M study found that the emissions tied to the average grocery store meal were 2 kilograms CO2e/meal higher than an equivalent meal kit. The average emissions were calculated to be 6.1 kg CO2e/meal for a meal kit and 8.1 kg CO2e/meal for a grocery store meal, a 33 percent difference.

Food production was found to be the largest emissions source, for both meal kits and grocery store meals: 59 percent of meal kit emissions and 47 percent of grocery meal emissions were tied to agricultural production. Meals with the largest environmental impact either contained red meat or were associated with large amounts of wasted food.

Median grocery meal emissions exceeded the median meal kit emissions for four of the five meal types: salmon, chicken, pasta and salad. Additionally, emissions tied to household food waste from grocery meals were found to exceed those for meal kits for all five meal categories.

Emissions differences between meal kits and store-bought meals were found to be influenced by three primary factors: food waste, packaging and the supply-chain structure, which encompasses transportation logistics.

Because each meal kit is just one of many packages delivered on a truck route, it is associated with a small fraction of the total vehicle emissions. Grocery store meals, in contrast, typically require a personal vehicle trip to the store and back.

The study recorded meal kit emissions savings in what is called “last-mile transportation” – the final leg of the journey that gets food into the consumer’s home. In the findings, last-mile emissions accounted for 11 percent of the average grocery meal emissions compared to 4 percent for meal kit dinners.

Diversification of meal kit services is an opportunity

Since Blue Apron, HelloFresh and Plated joined the US market in 2012, dozens of other companies have also started selling meal kits that consumers can order online and cook at home.

Burgeoning consumer trends, such as the demand for healthier, easy-prep meals, gives rise to new opportunities in this space. In Europe for example, Germany’s vegetarian brand Eden Bio, launched a range of organic Happy Bowl meal kits earlier this year – featuring novel flavors: Thai Style, Asia Sweet Chili Style, Mexican Style and Indian Style.

The way consumers purchase and receive food is undergoing substantial transformation, and meal kits are likely to be part of it in some way,” says Dr. Heard.

“In order to minimize overall impacts of the food system, there is a need to continue to reduce food loss and waste, while also creating advances in transportation logistics and packaging to reduce last-mile emissions and material use,” he concludes.

Published by FoodIngredientsFrist on April 23, 2019

Image from Shutterstock


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