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Sustainable Cooking: Reducing Your Carbon Footprint

Kochen ohne Klimasünden

By now, we know that our climate is greatly influenced by our diet. Up to 25% of global emissions can be traced back to food. About half of this comes from animal products. To counteract emissions, we have examined both sustainable foods and the biggest climate sins.

In the following article, we show you various foods and compare them based on the emissions generated during production. Since several greenhouse gases often arise in the production process, we provide the carbon footprint in kilograms of CO2 equivalents per kilogram of food. The data provided mostly comes from the “Institute for Energy and Environmental Research Heidelberg.”

Sustainable Foods

Local & Seasonal Products

Transporting food across the globe always involves high emissions. Therefore, many consumers prefer locally grown foods. However, local doesn’t always mean climate-friendly.

Due to the climatic conditions in many countries, it is unfortunately not possible to plant tomatoes, strawberries, and the like all year round. At least not outdoors. However, in heated greenhouses, the plants thrive wonderfully. But heating leads to disproportionately high CO2 emissions, as shown in the following table of products available in German supermarkets:

Strawberries, from Germany, seasonal0.3
Strawberries, from Spain0.4
Strawberries, from Germany, heated greenhouse3.4
Tomatoes, from Germany, seasonal0.3
Tomatoes, from Southern Europe0.4
Tomatoes, from Germany, heated greenhouse2.9
* [kg CO2-eq. / kg food]

Another problem is that there is no legal definition of “regional” or “local,” as there is for organic products in most countries. Despite a label, products can travel long distances because manufacturers use various labels and define “regional” very differently. Ingredients may come from South America, while the final processing takes place in Germany. Yet, the packaging says “locally grown”.

Animal Products

Before I write something about animal products, I want to say this: I do not want to force or encourage anyone to become vegan. I also do not claim that everyone in the world must or should eat vegan. However, when we talk about the carbon footprint, animal products always top the list.

Overall, it is difficult to give a concrete number showing how much emissions we can save by avoiding animal products. The carbon footprint strongly depends on personal needs and purchasing decisions. On average, however, diet-related emissions decrease by more than 50% when animal products are avoided.

Dairy Products

Dairy cows from factory farming release enormous amounts of methane, and milk production also has a poor CO2 balance. Additionally, cows require a lot of feed, making land use about ten times higher than for plant-based alternatives.

There are substitute products for all dairy items that can have a much better CO2 footprint. Taste and consistency vary depending on the manufacturer, as with animal products. Therefore, you should not be discouraged too quickly if you try a milk substitute that you don’t like.

We compared common dairy products with their substitutes, and the result is clear:

Dairy ProductsCO2Footprint*Substitute ProductsCO2Footprint*
Butter9.0Margarine, low-fat1.7
Cheese, average5.7Cheese substitute, coconut fat2.0
Cream4.2Oat cuisine0.6
Quark, 40% fat3.3Quark substitute, soy0.7
Yogurt, plain1.7Yogurt substitute, soy0.6
Milk, whole milk1.3Oat drink0.3
* [kg CO2-eq. / kg food]


Until pigs, chickens, and cattle reach their slaughter weight, they need enormous amounts of feed and water. To grow quickly, the animals need enough nutrients for their growth. Protein-rich feed is not produced in sufficient quantities in some countries. Therefore, soy is added to the feed, which is imported from abroad.

For soybean cultivation, especially in South America, vast areas of savannas and rainforests are cleared and converted. This land conversion is responsible for massive species extinction, and with each piece of land, an important CO2 storage is lost.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not vegans who are to blame for this tragedy. Around 80% of the world’s soy is used for animal feed, mostly from North and South America. The soy used in Germany for vegan products mainly comes from certified organic farms in Europe.

Of course, it would be best not to eat meat at all. Eating less meat is definitely a start. Occasionally replacing a juicy steak with a tofu schnitzel won’t harm your body. In the following table, we have compared the CO2 balance of meat, fish, and vegan alternatives.

Meat / FishCO2Footprint*Substitute ProductsCO2Footprint*
Chicken5.5Soy granules1.0
Beef patty, frozen9.0Veggie burger, soy1.1
Chicken nuggets3.3Vegetable nuggets1.3
Fish, aquaculture5.1
Fish, wild-caught4.0
* [kg CO2-eq. / kg food]


The world’s oceans form the largest carbon sink on our planet and produce most of the oxygen in the atmosphere. Therefore, it is crucial to protect the oceans worldwide. However, there are numerous threats to our seas. The fishing industry is one of them.

The threats include plastic waste, illegal bycatch, water pollution, and habitat destruction. In addition to the enormous environmental impacts, fish itself also has a relatively high CO2 footprint. (See table) If you only want to use sustainable food for cooking, you should completely avoid seafood.

For more information about the consequences of fishing, visit the “Sea Shepherd” organization.

What most people don’t know: You don’t need fish for a healthy diet. Fish don’t produce valuable minerals and omega-3 fatty acids themselves; they only absorb them through their diet (in the form of algae). You can skip the fish as the “intermediary.”

Side Dishes

Let’s move on to the most popular side dishes in Germany: pasta, potatoes, and rice. Pasta has 0.7 kg CO2-eq and potatoes 0.2 kg CO2-eq per kg of food. In contrast, rice is a real culprit. It produces 3.1 kg CO2-eq per kg of rice. In other words: for one kilogram of rice, you could eat 15.5 kg of potatoes or 4.4 kg of pasta.

The high emissions from rice mainly result from the cultivation method. In wet rice cultivation, the fields are flooded. Methane-producing bacteria multiply rapidly in the waterlogged, muddy soils. So much so that rice cultivation accounts for up to 25% of global methane emissions. Depending on the observation period, methane is up to 80 times more harmful than CO2.

I am a fan of rice dishes myself, but these numbers motivate me to peel potatoes or use alternatives like bulgur and quinoa.

Tap Water

In the comparison between mineral water and tap water, mineral water performs significantly worse. One liter of tap water has an average CO2 emission of 0.35g / liter. In contrast, mineral water emits 200g / liter. Thus, one liter of mineral water causes as many emissions as 571 liters of tap water.

In extraction and processing, the emissions are almost identical between mineral and tap water. However, emissions increase dramatically through bottling, bottle production, transportation, and supermarket sales. The further the mineral water is transported, the higher the CO2 emissions.

Therefore, it is almost absurd that leading brands in Germany, like Volvic or Vittel, are imported from abroad. In Germany, people can hardly complain about the water quality. So why not drink straight from the tap? It is better for your wallet and the climate.

Nachhaltige Lebensmittel

Why Buy at All?

Grow Your Own Food

There are plenty of regrowing vegetables. You can regrow your “organic waste” with simple means. All you need is soil, sun, and some water. The plants do the rest. Some vegetables can be planted all year round, and harvesting takes less effort than the weekly shopping.

And besides: you don’t have to worry about pesticides, insecticides, or toxins. You know exactly where your vegetables come from and what’s in them.

Cook Yourself

With your own products, you can also cook wonderfully. Self-cooked meals usually taste better and save a lot of money. Additionally, when cooking, you can choose how sustainable your food will be.

Buying ready-made meals or dining out does have some advantages, but it also has disadvantages in terms of emissions. Many ready-made meals involve processing steps that would be eliminated with homemade preparation. Driving to the nearest drive-in or restaurant, as well as well-heated spaces, also generate additional emissions.