Despite more packaging, meal kits are greener than groceries, study suggests

A new study suggests that meal kits from companies like HelloFresh and Chef's Plate produced about 33 per cent less greenhouse gas than the same meal made from groceries bought in a store.

Meal made with groceries produced 33% more greenhouse gas than one from a kit

Meal kits performed better than grocery stores in a number of ways, such as producing less food waste and greenhouse gas from transportation. (HelloFresh/Associated Press)

Meal kits like HelloFresh come to your door as a box or bag full of plastic-wrapped ingredients. But while it may look wasteful, a new study suggests home-delivered meal kits might actually be better for the environment than buying food for dinner from a grocery store.

Many ingredients in a meal kit are individually packaged — sauces and spices come in plastic packets — which creates a fair amount of plastic waste, plus the cardboard boxes used to deliver them.

Shelie Miller, associate professor at the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems and senior author of the paper published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling, said she was motivated to study the kits because of comments from friends about how wasteful they thought the packaging was.

None of the researchers was a regular meal-kit user, and meal-kit companies didn't fund the research.

"For me, the big thing is the idea of visible versus invisible waste and environmental impacts," said Miller.

People have been "trained in this 'reduce, reuse, recycle' mentality, thinking so much [that] solid waste is enemy No. 1," she said, referring to "visible" waste.

Meal-kit delivery services are already a $120-million industry in Canada and growing. A report from market research company the NPD Group found that 13 per cent of Canadians have used meal kits at some point, and 42 per cent said they're interested in trying them out.

Plastics and packaging have an impact on the environment, but don't capture the true environmental cost of food, Miller said.

The researchers took five different recipes (including a cheeseburger, a salmon dish and a pasta one), making each one twice: once from a meal kit, and once from ingredients bought at a grocery store.

The contents of a HelloFresh meal kit for masala chickpea wraps with cucumber raita and spinach salad. Cucumbers come loose, while other ingredients such as cilantro are in plastic packaging. (HelloFresh Canada)

The study estimated how much greenhouse gas was produced at every step of each meal's production, including growing the food, transporting it, packaging it, and from any food that got thrown out.

After adding up all the environmental impacts, the researchers found that, on average, a meal made with groceries produced about 33 per cent more greenhouse gas than the same one from a meal kit.

Even though the kits used more packaging than grocery-store meals, they created less food waste and emissions from transportation.

Grocery stores waste a lot of food

The researchers found that meal kits, with their pre-portioned servings, involved much less food going to waste than meals made with grocery store food. Waste in grocery stores comes from overstocking and throwing food away when it's expired, and from selling food in larger portions that go unused.

"One of the things our study is trying to highlight is the importance of household food waste, and trying to convey the message that food really is environmentally impactful," Miller said.

"The food we eat tends to have high environmental intensity, even though we don't necessarily see it, because it's happened all the way upstream," she said, referring to how food is grown and transported.

A January 2019 report from Second Harvest, a Canadian charity that distributes food that would otherwise go to waste to food banks and other social-service groups, found that 4.82 million tonnes of food, worth $21 billion, is discarded in Canada every year because it doesn't meet quality standards or is damaged during packaging.

When shopping at a grocery store, Miller said it begins with choosing more plant-based, locally grown food that's easier on the environment — and also buying less.

"The simplest way of actually reducing environmental impacts is only buy what you can reasonably consume," Miller said.

Home-delivered meal kits have quickly grown into a $120-million industry in Canada, according to analysts. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Growing food is environmentally intense

For both meal-kit and grocery-store meals, most of the greenhouse gas was emitted in the production of the food itself.

The emissions varied widely, depending on the ingredients. For example, producing a cheeseburger produces about six times the amount of greenhouse gas than a salmon entree: 4.4 kilograms of carbon emissions for the burger — the equivalent of burning about two litres of gasoline — versus 775 grams for the fish.

For some meals, the differences were more pronounced between grocery store food and meal kits. Dinners with lots of perishable ingredients, for example a pasta requiring many types of fresh herbs and vegetables, were best as meal kits compared to groceries, because people tend to buy more than they need at the store.

Overall, meals with red meat had the largest environmental impact.

Grocery stores also scored worse than meal kits on "last-mile" emissions, because more driving is involved in getting food from the store to your home than in a meal-kit provider getting food from a distribution centre to your home: Meal kits are delivered on trucks along with other parcels, and one truck might deliver many meal kits to a neighbourhood.

Furthermore, a 2015 survey by the USDA found that the average U.S. household shopped at a store six kilometres from home, and 98 per cent of higher-income households used their own vehicle for grocery shopping, rather than taking public transportation or walking.

Making meal kits more environmentally friendly

Meal kits may be less environmentally impactful than grocery stores, but there are still areas where they can improve.

One way, said lead study author Brent Heard, would be to reduce the packaging to the minimum required to protect and contain the food during transportation. HelloFresh Canada told CBC News that it's reduced the amount of packaging in its meal kits by 45 per cent since 2017.

In addition, meal-kit manufacturers can "work to reduce the food loss in their … packaging facilities to be as low as possible," Heard said.

Offering fewer meals containing red meat, and making those meat portions smaller, would also reduce the impact on the environment, he said.