If using any information or tools below as a source, please footnote it as: "A Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Plant-Based Foods and Meat Foods Summary (Quantis & MorningStar Farms®, 2016)" and feel free to use the link to this web page.
The MorningStar Farms frozen veggie foods brand commissioned an independent consulting firm to conduct a study, called “A Comparative Life Cycle Assessment of Plant-Based Foods and Meat Foods” (referred to in this LCA Summary as the “LCA” or the “study”) to help us understand the environmental impacts on the earth of:
- 1) Eating a meatless/veggie meal versus a meat-containing meal
- 2) Eating a MorningStar Farms veggie product instead of the equivalent amount of a meat product
To evaluate the environmental impacts, a “Life Cycle Assessment” (or LCA) approach was used. Over recent decades, LCA methodology has become a principal approach to evaluate a broad view of environmental problems and to help make decisions within the complex arena of environmental sustainability. LCA methodology is used by public and private organizations around the world to identify opportunities to improve the environmental performance of products, inform decision-making on strategy and policy issues, support communication and educational efforts, and much more.
MorningStar Farms wanted to understand the environmental impacts of meatless versus meat-containing meals and to substantiate with primary research our advertising claims supporting our “Good for the Earth” and “Just What the World OrderedTM” initiatives. We especially wanted to be able to assess the impact to the earth on the following, as we knew that they were especially important to consumers:
- 1) Carbon footprint or greenhouse gas emissions
- 2) Water use
- 3) Land use
This information will be shared for educational purposes with consumers and employees and will also be used to inform future MorningStar Farms initiatives, including evaluation of our product supply chain for improvement.
MorningStar Farms commissioned Quantis to conduct the LCA along with an external expert panel review. Quantis is a global, independent, leading sustainability consulting firm that has conducted many LCAs and is specialized in supporting companies to measure and understand the environmental impacts of their products, services and operations. The LCA was peer-reviewed by Michael Hauschild, PhD, of the Technical University of Denmark, Greg Thoma, PhD, of the University of Arkansas, and Joan Sabaté, PhD, of Loma Linda University. More information about these creators and reviewers can be obtained here:
This study has taken advantage of the best available information on food production and has been externally reviewed to validate its conformance with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14044 standard.
The ISO 14044 standard specifies requirements and provides guidelines for Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) including: definition of the goal and scope of the LCA, the life cycle inventory analysis (LCI) phase, the life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) phase, the life cycle interpretation phase, reporting and critical review of the LCA, limitations of the LCA, relationship between the LCA phases, and conditions for use of value choices and optional elements. More information on this can be found here.
Below is a summary of the LCA and what we learned from it. The full version of the LCA can be reviewed in detail here.
In addition to the LCA, our team did research to figure out how best to communicate the impact numbers in a way that would be easier to relate to and understand. For example, you may have heard us say “that’s enough miles to fly to the moon” or “that’s more water than the average American uses in 2 weeks.” Please click here to see all the sources of information we used to translate what a certain amount of water usage, land area, or miles driven might look like.
As with any research, this LCA was limited by the data available to us to use, and includes a number of data assumptions which are listed in Tables 1 and 2 of the full LCA (see link above). We have done our best to describe our data sources and major assumptions below. If you are writing an article sourcing this data and have questions, please contact the Kellogg Media Hotline at Media.Hotline@kellogg.com or 269-961-3799.
Note: while this LCA is representative of an average of many meal choices by a population, it does not intend to reflect the environmental impacts that would be associated in the case of a whole scale “shift” scenario such as all meat products being removed from the economy. Therefore, while our calculator tools may allow you to calculate the impact of a very large number of people (like all the people in the US swapping to a number of veggie meals regularly), an entire shift to vegetarianism in the US would result in agricultural and distribution system shifts that this LCA does not account for. Therefore, calculations of that magnitude are not supported by the data in our LCA, and so we have limited the output given by the calculator for that reason.
Main Sources of Data for the Environmental Impact Calculations:
- • National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)
- • United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS)
- • National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
- • USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) National Nutrient Database
- • Ecoinvent
- • Agri-Footprint
- • The Kellogg Company
For a comprehensive list of data sources and assumptions, please refer to Tables 1 and 2 of the full LCA.
Data Used in Comparisons of Meat-Containing v. Meatless Meals
For the meal comparisons in the LCA, NHANES data (2011-2012) was used to determine food group amounts in meat-containing and meatless meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), and when necessary, USDA ERS/NMFS data was used to determine proportions of food types within the food groups. This is the best available representation of meat-containing and meatless meals to enable comparison. Additionally, data from existing LCA data bases, especially Ecoinvent (SCLCA 2015) and Agri-footprint (Blonk 2014), were used to account for manufacturing, packaging, retail, distribution, consumption and waste management.
Data Used in Comparisons of MorningStar Farms Products v. Equivalent Meat Products
For the product comparisons in the LCA, several MorningStar Farms products were compared with the equivalent amount of a meat product as outlined below. Different types of foods across the portfolio of MorningStar Farms items are represented. The MorningStar Farms products and the meat products they were compared against (based on the best available data to represent their production, especially Eshel et al. 2014) are listed below. All products are compared on a 60g basis. To calculate the environmental impact of MorningStar Farms products, information from the Kellogg Company was used regarding the ingredients, packaging and manufacturing of these products.
DEFINITIONS OF TERMS USED IN THE LCA SUMMARY AND IN CONSUMER COMMUNICATION
When referred to in general for environmental impact statements, the term “Meal” refers to a meal constructed using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service and Agricultural Research Service (ERS/ARS), and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Unless specified as breakfast, lunch, or dinner, Meal refers to a breakfast Meal. This is because the impact on the environment differs by meal type, with more meat typically consumed for lunches and dinners than for breakfast. Therefore, using breakfast to base our meal assumptions reflects a more conservative view of environmental impact differences between meatless and meat-containing meals. The gram weight of food categorized in all meals is represented in the LCA as determined by NHANES; food type is determined by a combination of NHANES, USDA, and NMFS.
The data on meals includes fluid milk and juices, but does not include other beverages, such as water, soda and other sweetened beverages. This exclusion is because we assumed that beverage consumption would be similar regardless of meal type.
Detail by all types of meals can be found below and in the detailed LCA, if desired.
- Meat in the LCA is characterized as beef, pork, chicken and fish. This is because these meats make up at least 90% of the meat consumed in the US. Also, these meats were the only types for which robust environmental impact information was available.
- In order to take into account the impact of other meats (like lamb, veal, sausages) or meats that were not specified in NHANES data and/or for which environmental impact information was not available, the LCA determined the environmental impact of their production by representing those meats by a ratio determined by USDA Disappearance Data: chicken 46%, beef 25%, pork, 21%, fish 7%. The exception to this is turkey, whose environmental impact is based on chicken data.
- In addition, there were also mixes of meat and other foods (like in meatloaf or casseroles) that people consumed and reported in NHANES as one unit. The impact of meats that were part of mixtures are represented in our study in the following way, based on major food groups:
- Mixture of meat with vegetables: 1/2 meat, 1/2 vegetables
- Mixture of meat with vegetables and grains (like in frozen dinners): 1/3 meat, 1/3 vegetables, 1/3 grains
- A “meat-containing meal” refers to a meal that has meat as some part of the meal, as defined above.
- For more details on the above, please see Section 3.3 in the full LCA (LINK).
“Meatless meal” or “veggie meal” refers to a meal that does not contain meat, but may contain eggs or dairy. Commonly, this is referred to as a “vegetarian” meal. In contrast, a “vegan” meal contains NO animal products. The LCA evaluated the impact of meatless/veggie meals, not vegan meals, on the environment.
Through this research, we saw that meatless meals tend to weigh less than meat-containing meals. To ensure that any differences we found in environmental impact were due to the actual content of the meals and not to how much food was consumed, we adjusted meals to have equal weight at each meal occasion.
Weight Adjustment Used in the LCA (Table 2)
When evaluating MorningStar Foods against specific meats, the LCA looked at comparisons based on weight, calories and protein content. This LCA Summary is using equal weight to report out its findings because it is a simple measure for most people to make direct food comparisons. The direction of results (generally favoring the veggie products) is the same across all three comparison bases, although in some cases one basis favors the meatless products more or less than another, but without a clear pattern. Comparisons based on calories and protein content can be found in the full LCA.
Release of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses that contribute to global climate change
Freshwater consumption (water that is withdrawn from natural reservoirs and not returned)
Use of non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels, metal ores and mineral desposits
Potential to cause adverse health outcomes due to pollutants which may cause respiratory disease, etc.
A decrease in biodiversity (density of wildlife species) through destruction of habitat, pollution and other causes
When speaking of ‘saved’ or ‘reduced’ greenhouse gas emissions in this LCA, we are not implying that existing greenhouse gasses are taken directly out of the atmosphere – instead, the savings come from the decision made by an individual or a group of individuals who choose a veggie meal over a meat-containing meal, thereby preventing the additional greenhouse gasses that otherwise could have been emitted into the atmosphere during the production of the meat-containing meal.
Water impacts reflected on this LCA refer to the earth’s limited freshwater from surface or groundwater resources, also known as “blue water”. This LCA does not include water from rain, also known as “green water”, or the smaller and potentially duplicative water required to dilute pollutants to meet water quality standards “grey water”, both of which might be included in other water calculators available to the public.
Land Use is one of several metrics that are used to determine the overall Ecosystem Quality category. The land usage data falls under the ‘Ecosystem Quality’ set of impacts and is featured prominently in our findings because of the high interest of MorningStar Farms and consumers in this information. Land Use is defined as the area of land occupied in a non-natural state for a given amount of time for any purpose, including such uses as land for farms, roads, factories and retail stores.
The life cycle of the foods that were analyzed in the LCA included the following stages:
for meat products, this includes the food and water used to feed the animal; for veggie products, raw materials are the food ingredients used to make the product
includes transportation of raw materials or animals to the plants or processing facilities and the energy needed to produce the products
resources used to create the packaging
includes transportation of finished products to distribution outlets and energy required to keep products on shelf (freezers, refrigeration, lights) at the stores
the energy used by the consumer in storing, cooking and cleaning the food and dishes they use to eat the food
the energy and transportation used to dispose of the wasted food and packaging from the product
A NOTE ON FISH
Although fish and shellfish are included throughout this assessment, the assessment does not consider the impact of fish consumption on the viability of the world’s fisheries, which is an important concern regarding the impact of catching and consuming wild-caught fish. This additional issue should be considered when evaluating the environmental impact of fish consumption and that the LCA-based methods used here do not consider it.
See the above section for definitions of the various different environmental impacts measured. See below for the explanation of the exact measurements reported in the findings.
- Carbon Footprint is measured in units of kilograms (or pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalents (Kg CO2 eq., or Lb CO2 eq.)
- Water Use is measured in units of cubic meters (m3) or gallons (gal)
- Resource Consumption is measured in units of megajoules (MJ) or kilowatt-hours (kWh)
- Health Impact of Pollution is measured in units of disability-adjusted life-years (DALY)
- Ecosystem Quality is measured in units of the percent of species on a given piece of land that are lost over a given time, potentially disappeared fractions per square meter (or square foot) year (PDF-m2-yr or PDF-ft2-yr)
- Land Use is a part of Ecosystem Quality and is measured in square meters (m2) or square feet (ft2)
- When American Adults consume a meatless meal versus a meat-containing meal, there is on average, at least 40% less impact on the overall environment
- Meatless dinners show the highest amount of environmental savings among all the impact categories, followed by lunches and then breakfasts, primarily because meat-containing dinners contain more meat than breakfast or lunch occasions
- Although a benefit is seen for choosing a meatless meal in comparison to any of the meat types, a much larger benefit is seen for removal of beef in comparison to the other meat types
- Dairy and grains are high contributors to the environmental impact of the meatless meals, with dairy being more substantial for meatless breakfasts in comparison to other meals
- To see how different types of meals, like breakfast, lunch and dinner, differ in environmental impact, see the table below
Reduction in Environmental Impact of a Meatless Meal Compared to a Meat-Containing Meal
IMPERIAL (Table 3)
METRIC (Table 4)
Here is the raw data used in calculating the tables above:
Environmental Impact of Meatless and Meat-Containing Meals
IMPERIAL (Table 5)
METRIC (Table 6)
- Specifically regarding Carbon Footprint or greenhouse gas emissions, a switch to a meatless meal results on average, in at least a 58% reduction (for breakfast), with lunch and dinner both having a reduction of, on average, about 70% in greenhouse gas emissions versus a meat-containing meal
- Instead of kilograms or pounds of carbon footprint or greenhouse gasses, we will often report results in consumer communication in “miles traveled by a standard car”
- Pounds of greenhouse gasses emitted by a standard car over a mile = 0.91 lbs.
- Source used for this translation of pounds into miles: US Environmental Protection Agency
- Regarding Land Usage, a switch to a meatless meal results on average, in at least a 77% reduction (for dinner), with breakfast and lunch having on average 78% and 79%, less usage of land to provide food than a meat-containing meal, respectively
- These figures are impacted by the fact that fish meals typically do not use much land to provide food
METRIC (Table 8)
Here is the raw data used in calculating the tables above:
IMPERIAL (Table 9)
METRIC (Table 10)
METRIC (Table 12)
Here is the raw data used in calculating the tables above:
Water Usage Impact of Meatless Meals and Meat-Containing Meals
IMPERIALS (Table 13)
METRIC (Table 14)
METRIC (Table 16)
Here is the raw data used in calculating the tables above:
Land Usage Impact of Meatless Meals and Meat-Containing Meals
IMPERIAL (Table 17)
METRIC (Table 18)
- Across all evaluated MSF products on an equal weight basis, there is at least 13% less impact on the environment when MSF veggie foods are consumed than a meat product
- When looking at different products versus different meats with regards to all environmental impacts, there was a wide range of improvement, from nearly no difference in some cases to more than 90% reduction in impact
- Comparison to beef products generally result in the most extreme benefits often in the range of 80% or 90% improvement or more across environmental impact metrics for MSF products versus beef, with the exception of Resource Consumption at about 60%
- For MSF products versus pork and chicken, environmental impact ranged from 13% (in the case of the Resource Consumption comparison with breaded chicken patties) to a more than 70% improvement (in the case of the Water Consumption comparison with pork sausage patties)
- See Table 19 below to compare each of the evaluated MSF products with different types of meats and across different environmental impacts
Environmental Impact Reductions of MorningStar Farms products versus their meat equivalents (equal weight comparisons)
Here is the raw data that was used in calculating Table 19 above – the environmental impact of each product, by impact factor:
IMPERIAL (Table 20)
METRIC (Table 21)
- In most meal and product comparisons, the main driver for environmental impact takes place in the production of raw materials
- Raw materials are responsible, on average, for at least 50% of the Carbon Footprint of meatless meals, at least 80% of the Carbon Footprint of meat-containing meals, and about 99% of the Water Usage of all meal types
- The majority of the difference between meat and non-meat products happens in the feed crop production that it takes to feed the animals that are then consumed, especially for cows/beef
- Put simply, raising animals to feed humans requires growing much more primary vegetable material than if humans consume more of the vegetable material directly rather than raising the meat
- Within the various meat types that the LCA considers, beef is by far the greatest contributor of environmental impact across the life cycle stages
- Beef more than doubles impact over other meats in most cases with the exception of Resource Consumption
- This is due to the animal raising stage being very high for beef due to emissions of methane directly from cattle as well as from managing their manure
- The other stages of the life cycle, although similar for the various meat products, are proportionately more important in the case of chicken and pork due to the lower impact at the feed and farm level for these meat products
- For MorningStar Farms® products, specifically, raw material production is a highly significant contributor to each of the environmental impacts examined. However, the manufacturing and consumer use stages are also important contributors and are generally more significant on a proportional basis for the MorningStar Farms veggie products than is seen above for the meat products. This is partly due to the lesser impact associated with raw materials causing these other stages to contribute a proportionately large amount. In addition, the MorningStar Farms veggie products are cooked during their manufacturing, whereas the meat products are simply ground and mixed.
Across the set of comparisons made here, it has been found that choosing to eat veggie products instead of meat is likely to lead American adults to achieve a lower environmental impact. The extent of the improvement varies widely, but, overall, environmental impact can be cut, on average, by at least 40% by switching from meat-containing meals to veggie ones. In fact, with the exception of the Resource Consumption environmental impact for the comparison of breakfast (which shows on average, about a 44% reduction in environmental impact), all other environmental impacts show on average, at least a 50% reduction for a meatless meal in comparison to a meal with meat.
This study shows clear evidence that the selection of plant-based options, on a product-by-product and meal-by-meal basis is very likely to result in environmental improvements and would achieve a reduction on average of at least 40% of the overall environmental impact of consuming meat-based meals. As is acknowledged throughout, this outcome will vary widely in the case of specific meals being compared.
We love research almost as much as we love our veggies.
The way we eat has an enormous impact on our environment. But when we looked into ways to quantify that impact, we weren’t satisfied with the research we found. No single study allowed us to specifically compare the environmental impact of choosing veggie meals vs. choosing meat-containing meals for specific meal occasions like breakfast, lunch and dinner. So we commissioned our own.
As part of our commitment to sustainability, MorningStar Farms® and Kelloggs® partnered with Quantis to create a Life Cycle Assessment that measures the impact of veggie and meat-containing meals on carbon footprint, water use, land use, resource consumption, health impact of pollution and ecosystem quality. Learn more about what this data means and read our LCA Summary here.
*The actual environmental impacts will vary depending on various factors, including the source of the food and other overall dietary choices.