This study aimed to use real-life examples to estimate the potential to improve extruded breakfast cereals environmental impact via nutrition-focused reformulation.
The recipe changes that occurred during the 15-year reformulation cycle, i.e. switching from palm oil to sunflower oil and from purely refined cereals to a mix of wholegrain and refined cereals alongside a general reformulation to reduce sugar and fat content, led to substantial improvements in the products’ nutritional value as measured by Nutri-Score. On the level of individual nutrients, the recipe changes were linked to reductions in energy, total sugars, saturated fats and sodium content with parallel improvements in their fiber and protein content.
The reformulation cycle, together with the changes that occurred in the other stages of the supply chain, was associated with improvements of three environmental impact indicators out of the five assessed in this study (climate change, abiotic resource depletion and impact on ecosphere quality); with increases observed for the land use impact on biodiversity and freshwater consumption scarcity.
Ingredients (i.e., the agricultural stage) contributed to more than 60% of the environmental impact for all indicators but abiotic resource depletion; at all phases of the reformulation cycle. In this specific study, the removal of rice, potentially one of the crops with the highest carbon footprints (35), and the switch from palm oil to sunflower oil could explain the changes in carbon footprint seen both at the ingredients level and for the full LCA (36, 37). However, despite the high irrigation needs of rice (38), its removal was not linked to improvements in freshwater scarcity. Similarly, the removal of palm oil was not associated with improvements in markers on biodiversity protection. A potential explanation for those changes could be linked to the hypothesis made in this analysis that all ingredients were produced following conventional practices. As shown in the sensitivity analysis, changes in the agricultural practices towards a no deforestation policy could have a high impact on the greenhouse gas emissions of these products (up to 55% reductions); and those same agricultural practices would promote greater biodiversity protection. The present results thereby strengthen the rationale for increasing the effort on improving farming practices to reduce the environmental impact of the food system (39, 40). The food industry has a key role to play in promoting those beneficial agricultural practices via its choice of suppliers and the promotion of agricultural transformation. While the choices of suppliers based on their environmental footprint may have attracted little attention so far, data indicate that even within the same country, the region of production for a raw material is linked with great differences in its carbon and water footprint, under the same agricultural practices (41). In reality though, the implementation of such environmental management strategy requires large resources in terms of establishing monitoring and auditing protocols, increasing the frequency of site visits, creating and strengthening partnerships with external verification organizations and local authorities, and investing in new technological solutions combining satellite remote sensing and big data analytics (42).
The contribution of ingredients to the environmental impact of products increased throughout the reformulation cycle. This was due to the reduction – in absolute terms – of the environmental impact of the other stages of the life-cycle, in particular manufacturing, packaging, and end-of-life. These improvements, which partly mitigated some negative effects of ingredient changes, highlight the increased rates of recycling that occurred in France in the 15 years analyzed, and the continuous progress that has been made by food manufacturers in terms of efficiency of manufacturing and packaging technology.
This analysis is not without caveats. Firstly, the product category studied is unique in terms of its environmental impact as the stage of transport, retail and food waste by the consumers are fairly small contributors in the environmental footprint given that the products are dried and shelf stable. The same analysis could yield substantially different results if carried out in products that require a cold-supply chain (43). Even among the cereal-based products, breakfast cereals have different LCAs than products like bread in which food waste and storage would play a larger role in the overall carbon footprint despite ingredients remaining the main contributor (44). Moreover, the choice of databases to retrieve the environmental data and the assumptions made for the suppliers and manufacturing methods of the historical recipes indicate that extrapolation of these results to other food categories should be made with caution (45–47). The lack of regularly updated lice cycle inventory databases, which would include good quality historical and statistical data and the reliance on the publicly available datasets, hinders the capacity to reflect on actual changes in the agricultural practices (48). On the other hand, this study is potentially the only one to present data on a full LCA analysis using a combination of publicly available and real-life data in all stages of the model and utilizing access to the manufacturers own databases to increase accuracy. In terms of carbon footprint, the current analysis estimated that greenhouse gas emissions of the analyzed products fall in the range of 67–100 g CO2-eq for every 30 g portion after reformulation. Previous studies that followed a similar methodology and carried out a full LCA analysis (bar end of life analysis) indicate that greenhouse gas emissions for cereal products fall in the range of 80–117 g CO2-eq with exception of two studies that indicated much lower emissions 21–30 g CO2-eq, potentially due to the studies’ limited scope (studying specific aspects of the cereal product production or use of different LCI databases) (11, 49–52).
Overall, the results add to an ongoing discussion among academia, food industry and the consumers on how food can become more sustainable and more nutritious in order to address future challenges. The results highlight that the supply chain as a whole and the raw materials in particular are key areas for future work. This observation also holds true for whole diets (53): the Mediterranean diet, with its short supply chains, high utilization of low environmental impact agriculture, and respect for seasonality being a prime example of the need for a systems approach on food sustainability (54). Consumers are increasingly concerned over the provenance and environmental performance of the food they consume, but they often seem to focus on one aspect of a product’s environmental impact like its packaging (55) or the so-called food mile, a metric of the greenhouse gas emissions related to the transportation of a food from production to the kitchen cupboard. Often environmental sustainability is intertwined with the notion that a food is necessarily better for health or that it includes less unfamiliar ingredients and it is produced in a more ‘natural’ manner (56–59). The increased awareness of consumers around sustainability issues and the potential it has to impact consumer choices will require new research that expands beyond the simple greenhouse gas emissions metrics and the identification of new ways to communicate the complexity of an environmental impact LCA analysis to a non-expert audience (60).
Today multiple environmental impact indicators exist, each focusing on a certain aspect of the environmental impact equation. As previously shown in the nutrition world, in order to successfully drive consumer behavior and engage multiple stakeholders, the creation of composite markers that weigh the different aspects and serve as a simple to use metric to compare one food to another will be needed (61–63). The science of nutrient profiling was developed in nutrition for this purpose (64) and a similar discipline might soon be needed in the environmental sciences. Although primary reports exist on the conception and usefulness of such indicators (65), the creation of a unique metric that combines all aspects of a multi-indicator assessment will require a series of subjective choices which will eventually be challenged by the scientific community. The European Union Product Environmental Footprint methodology has attempted the creation of a framework to study simultaneously 15 environmental indicators, created a list of normalization factors and issued a series of pilot studies aiming in reducing the complexity of multi-indicator assessment towards an easier assessment and communication of the impact of products on the environment (66, 67).