Posted on August 4, 2011 - by

The Meat Eater’s Guide: weighing the impacts on your health and the environment


There are two clear signs of summer in the air: the heat wave sweeping across the country, and the barbeque smoke drifting on the afternoon breeze. I imagine that most of us are a good deal more excited about the latter. Before you throw a pack of hotdogs on the grill, however, it’s worth checking out the new Meat Eater’s Guide from the Environmental Working Group.

The guide is based on an assessment of the environmental and health effects of various forms of protein, including meat, dairy, and legumes. Using a lifecycle analysis that followed twenty types of animal and vegetable products through the entire process of production—including the chemicals used to grow grain for livestock feed, the life of the animal, butchering, processing, transportation, cooking, and waste—the EWG, in conjunction with the environmental consulting firm CleanMetrics, was able to determine the total carbon footprint of our most popular forms of protein.

While it’s no secret that meat and dairy production is a significant contributor to rising levels of greenhouse gasses, the report details the products that may be particularly implicated in this sweltering summer. The EWG found that while all meat arrives on the plate with environmental side effects, some forms of protein are more destructive than others.

Lamb, beef, pork, cheese, and farmed salmon are the greatest polluters in terms of carbon and manure. Lamb generates 50 percent more carbon than beef, which itself emits twice as many greenhouse gases as pork, four times as many as chicken, and thirteen times as many as vegetable proteins such as lentils and soy. Cheese comes in a surprisingly high third place in emissions output. That’s because making cheese requires milk, which in turn requires cows and lots of feed. These foods (with the exception of salmon) are also heavily resource-intensive, meaning they require large quantities of fertilizer, feed, and water, and so tend to have the worst environmental impacts as well.

The EWG found that most of the greenhouse gas emissions from animal proteins are generated during the production phase, when the animals are still on the farm. Livestock and fish feed, digestion, and manure all contribute to production emissions. Emissions from plant proteins, by contrast, largely come from post-farmgate processing, transportation, and cooking.

The good news is that more ecologically sound forms of protein tend to be healthier choices for people as well. Being picky about your protein isn’t just for carbon crusaders: recent research suggests that it’s an important key to your own longevity and wellbeing. The use of antibiotics and hormones to promote livestock growth, and the concentration of toxins in conventionally produced meat present risks to consumers. Several epidemiological studies have found associations between high levels of meat consumption and being overweight, while the American Dietetic Association suggests that vegetarians have lower rates of obesity and chronic illness than meat eaters[1]. The consumption of red and processed meats, in particular, has been linked repeatedly to chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. So, there are clear signs that eating meat in moderation, and using some vegetable sources for protein is the way to go.[2]

Climate change and cancer may seem like unrelated issues, but our best science demonstrates again and again that our ecological and physical health are intimately entwined. Given the rising costs of healthcare and the growing burden of chronic disease, it makes sense to practice preventative medicine at the supermarket and the dinner table. While simply eating, producing, and wasting less meat and dairy is the most effective way to make our food work for, not against, us, the EWG analysis suggests how to consume meat in a healthier way.

Eat less meat and dairy: Buying less meat overall makes it easier to afford healthier meat when you do buy it.  Most Americans exceed the government’s recommended daily allowance for protein, while only 1 percent of children and 4 percent of adults eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, Americans eat 60 percent more meat than Europeans. Try going meatless on Mondays, making meat a side dish instead of a main dish, or experimenting with plant-based proteins like lentils.

Choose local, certified organic, grass-fed meat: It reduces your exposure to antibiotics and hormones, supports your local or regional economy, requires fewer resources to produce, and pollutes less. In some cases, meat from grass fed animals is lower in fat and higher in nutrients than meat from conventionally raised livestock.

Avoid processed meats: Often loaded with sodium and nitrates, products like hot dogs, lunch meats, and chicken nuggets are energy-intensive to produce and have been linked with a variety of chronic illnesses.

Reduce waste: About 20% of edible meat gets thrown out. Buy appropriate portion sizes and use what you purchase.

Find out more: check out the EWG Eat Smart graphic, and find your local producers with the Eat Well Guide or the Eat Wild farm directory.

[1] Craig WJ, Mangels AR. 2009. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109(7):1266-82.
[2] For more information on meat and your health, look at the references for the EWG report at



We'd love to hear yours!

Comments are closed.