Climatic Change

, Volume 129, Issue 1–2, pp 73–87 | Cite as

Nutrient density as a metric for comparing greenhouse gas emissions from food production

  • Natalie A. Doran-Browne
  • Richard J. Eckard
  • Ralph Behrendt
  • Ross S. Kingwell


Dietary Guidelines for many countries recommend that people should eat ‘nutrient dense’ foods, which are foods with a high nutrient to energy ratio; and that people should limit their intake of saturated fat, added salt or added sugar. In addition, consumers and environmentalists increasingly want their food to be produced with a low impact on the environment, including reduced greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), yet agriculture is a major source of CH4 and N2O emissions, as well as producing CO2 emissions. Current research on GHGE from agriculture does not incorporate the nutritional value of the foods studied. However, the nutritional content of food is important, given the prevalence of malnutrition, including obesity (due to over-consumption of foods high in energy yet low nutritional density), and the negative health impacts they produce. This paper introduces the metric, emissions/unit nutrient density, and compares the results with three other metrics: emissions intensity (t CO2e/t product), emissions/t protein and emissions/GJ. The food products examined are wheat flour, milk, canola oil, lean lamb, lean beef, untrimmed lamb and untrimmed beef. The metric t CO2e/unit nutrient density was the preferred metric to use when examining GHGE from food production because it compares different types of products based on their nutritional value, rather than according to singular nutrients such as protein, or specific attributes such as product weight or energy content. Emissions/unit nutrient density has the potential to inform consumer choices regarding foods that have a higher nutritional content relative to the GHGE generated. Further analysis would be useful to develop and expand the use of this metric further.


Wheat Flour Dietary Guideline Nutrient Density Recommend Dietary Allowance Lean Meat 



Carbon dioxide equivalents


Greenhouse gas emissions


Milk fat plus protein


Recommended dietary allowance



This research was funded by the University of Melbourne and the Future Farm Industries Cooperative Research Centre, as well as Dairy Australia, Meat and Livestock Australia, Australian Wool Innovation and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry under its Carbon Farming Futures, Filling the Research Gap Program. The authors are grateful for assistance provided by Anneline Padayachee.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Natalie A. Doran-Browne
    • 1
  • Richard J. Eckard
    • 1
  • Ralph Behrendt
    • 2
  • Ross S. Kingwell
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural SciencesThe University of MelbourneParkvilleAustralia
  2. 2.Agriculture Research, Department of Environment and Primary IndustriesHamiltonAustralia
  3. 3.School of Agricultural and Resource EconomicsThe University of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia
  4. 4.Australian Export Grains Innovation CentreSouth PerthAustralia

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