Earth First

Eco-friendly Christmas Foods: 3 Sustainable Alternatives

Whether sitting down for a celebratory meal or looking for a gift to give to family and friends, food takes centre stage during the holiday season. So, what can we do to make our diets more sustainable at this indulgent time of year? How do we choose more eco-friendly Christmas food?

All stages of the food production process have environmental impacts. Every morsel of food you eat has land and water footprints, the size of which depends on how much land or water is used up growing that food and getting it to your plate. All of our food also has a carbon footprint, made up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (such as methane) that are emitted into our planet’s atmosphere during its production. And the impact of our food isn’t small: in fact, a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from producing and transporting food.1

What’s the impact of my festive feast?

Your festive feast this holiday season could have a greater impact on the planet than an average dinner for one simple reason: many of us eat lots of meat and animal products during the holidays, which dominate the list of foods with the greatest environmental footprints.2

While the traditional holiday turkey is not the worst possible choice of meat, poultry still has a carbon footprint of 10kg of emissions per kg of food. Ham, another festive favourite, fares worse: pig meat is responsible for 12kg of emissions per kg of food,2 though both are less damaging choices than beef, which tops the carbon emissions list at 15-27 kg of emissions per kg of meat.2

The individual carbon, land, and water footprints of any food can vary widely depending on how it’s produced, so the values quoted here are averages. In reality, the exact environmental impact of your food depends on whether it was farmed by a high-impact or a low-impact producer - but it’s worth noting that even the most sustainable choices of meat typically have a greater environmental impact than most plant-based sources of protein.3

Learn more about the differences between high-impact and low-impact meat producers.

Reducing the impact of your festive feast

Alongside their high greenhouse gas emissions, meat and animal products feature heavily on the list of highest water and land footprints. So here are three ways you can reduce the environmental impact of your festive feast by switching to more sustainable, plant-based and low-impact alternatives.

1. Swap your meat for a nut roast 

First, let’s tackle the centrepiece: why not replace the meat in your holiday dinner with a nut roast? 

Admittedly, nuts, especially almonds, have a large water footprint, with an average of 4,100L of water needed per kg of nuts produced. Cheese is the only food that comes in higher, at 5,600L of water per kg of cheese.2

Learn more about the water footprint of food and how it’s calculated.

But carbon emissions from nut production pale compared to those from animal products, clocking in at a mere 0.4kg of emissions per kg of nuts.2 This means they produce 25 times less greenhouse gas emissions compared with the same weight of turkey and 30 times less than ham, and nuts also require less land to grow than meat and cheese. This makes the vegetarian holiday dinner staple of nut roast a solid, environmentally-friendly choice.

Remember: The potatoes (or any other vegetables) on your plate are way down the list when it comes to environmental impacts compared with meat or animal products. So if a nut-based centrepiece doesn’t appeal, you could always reduce your meat portion size and load up on roast potatoes and parsnips instead!

2. Try plant-based “cheese” 

If a cheese board is more to your taste than dessert, it’s bad news... as well as it’s massive water footprint, cheese has a carbon footprint at around 10-14kg of emissions per kg of food.2

Luckily, there are plant-based alternatives here too. “Cheese” made from nuts – typically cashews, but also other varieties – can replace the salty, umami hit of cheese with only a fraction of the environmental impact.8

3. Choose forest-friendly sweet treats 

When winter rolls around, so do the sweet treats: chocolate, gingerbread, cakes and more. While the exact treats we indulge in at this time of year might vary from country to country, their base ingredients are similar: cocoa, sugar, and – in mass-produced versions – palm oil.

Unfortunately, all three of these ingredients have contributed to deforestation around the world.4,5,6 That means they can have a hefty environmental cost. In fact, chocolate is second only to beef regarding greenhouse gas emissions, producing an average of 47kg of emissions per kg of chocolate.2

Learn more about the sweet treats that damage natural biodiversity.

If you can’t face forgoing sugar and chocolate altogether, why not think again about which brand you buy instead? Brands’ environmental credentials vary, and by buying from companies that take sustainability seriously, you can send the message that you do too. For ethical chocolate, the two main certification schemes are Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance – but some products go even further beyond these in their efforts to be sustainable, so it pays to do your own research.7

A more Eco-friendly Christmas

The holiday season is a time of indulgence, as well as rest and recuperation, but by cutting down on some of our traditional foods or swapping them out for more sustainable versions, we can give the planet a much-needed break too.

Remember, it’s not just the food you eat that matters – using up leftovers and not buying more than you need could cut your overall holiday food footprint too. When it comes to food waste, try and focus on using up any meat or animal products first, because throwing them away has the greatest impact: in the UK, for example, meat and fish make up 8% of food waste by weight, but this waste contributes 19% of all emissions related to food waste - whereas fruit and veg, which makes up 25% of food waste, only accounts for 12% of the total emissions from wasted food.9

Check out these 5 tips for reducing your food waste this holiday season.

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