Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Beer, sodas, snack and convenience food are worse than meat

The food chain consumes one seventh of all energy in the USA. How we process, distribute and cook our food has a much bigger impact on our energy use than if we eat plants or animals. This is because food processing, distribution, cooking and food services consume 85 percent of all energy in the food chain in the USA. 

The first graph shows the energy use per person in the US food system up to the point of consumption.
What we can see is that snacks, convenience food, beverages and bakery products take very high shares of the energy (together 40 percent of the total).
  • One third of all energy is used for snacks, convenience food and beverages
  • Their energy use is double the total for all meats
  • Fruit and vegetables consume as much energy as dairy
  • Grains are most efficient at the farm level (which is why they have been staple foods in the first place), but their processing demands a lot of energy. Corn syrup for sodas, barley malt for beer, wheat for ready made pasta and pizza and bakery products, corn for all sorts of snacks)    
Note that the category "Frozen, canned, snack etc. contains a lot of different foods with mixed ingredients. If the frozen food is a single ingredient low processed products, e.g. a frozen broccoli or a turkey it will be classified as "processed vegetables" and "poultry" respectively.

If you look at what happens at the consumption level things get even more complex.  The 56% we see is the total from the graph above. Here we add the energy use in households and food eaten "out". This includes the energy spent for frying, storage in refrigerators and freezers etc. Here we see that
More than a fourth of the energy is used in households.

17 percent is used for cafés, restaurants, catering.

The food system's design and form plays a much bigger role than if we eat plants or animals. Fresh vegetables are actually one of the least efficient foods if you calculate energy efficiency (but they are very healthy to eat).

I will follow up this post with a longer analysis shortly.

Main source: Energy Use in the U.S. Food System by Patrick Canning, Ainsley Charles, Sonya Huang, and Karen R Polenske, Economic Research Report No. (ERR-94) 39 pp, March 2010

There seems to be some correlation between the share of the price that goes to the farmer and the share of energy use in the different stages of the food chain. 

Store Cost  
Farmer Income  



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