Nuts for the planet?

A photo of a market stall of nuts, alongside a photo of refrigerated meats

Adam Kiani, who is studying the MSc Environmental Technology at Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy, mediates a battle between two protein sources, helping us understand the role of plant-based protein in our diets by pitting nuts and meat against each other to fight for a place on our plates.

Nuts. They’re the protein-packed, store-cupboard snacks that often go under-the-radar when we talk about food and sustainability. But could they offer a healthy and sustainable alternative to meat? Researchers at the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health seem to think so.

Published in 2019, the EAT-Lancet report is the first, full scientific review that delves into the nitty gritty of what makes up a diet that is both sustainable and healthy. Their research suggests that, to fuel a growing population with a healthy diet, while staying within planetary limits, the world should be eating a whole lot more nuts, and a whole lot less meat.

They recommend that each person should be eating around 50 grams (a hefty handful) of nuts every day, while red meat, often seen as one of the worst offenders for its environmental and health impacts, should be limited to a maximum daily dose of 15 grams (a tenth of a T-bone steak). But I think we need to see for ourselves. Nuts vs Meat. Let’s get ready to rumble!

Nuts are in the blue corner, with meat in the red. It’s the protein showdown of the century.

Graphic showing a red and blue boxing glove

Round One – Taste

*Ding Ding*

That steaming pile of chicken nuggets is catching your eye, I can tell. The smell of sausages on a Sunday morning is staggering. We’re a lamb-loving nation, and nuts just don’t quite sit as comfortably into our culinary status-quo. While they’re a tasty and convenient snack, making nuts the centrepiece of the dinner plate is difficult. We don’t have reams of recipe-books loaded with nutty inspiration, so meat has the edge here. But while it may look pretty now, perched on the end of your fork, when you know more about how it got there, and what it will do once it’s down your gullet, it might not look so appetising…

Meat takes round one, but something tells me this one’s going to go the distance.

Graphic showing a red and blue boxing glove

Round Two – Health

*Ding Ding*

Both meat and nuts are full of protein, which is why they are often grouped together. Protein is needed by the body for a suite of essential bodily functions, like rebuilding our cells and tissues, so we need to give our bodies the supply they need through our diet. But nuts offer more than just protein. Some nut types are also high in ‘micronutrients’ – elements needed by the body in small amounts. Brazil nuts are a great example of this. They’re brimming with a little-known element called selenium, which is especially important for cognition. It’s floating around in your head right now, helping you to make sense of all these squiggly lines we like to call words! Meat also contains other essential nutrients. It is rich in vitamin B12, hard to find in plant-based food sources, including nuts, though it is often added to nut products such as almond milk.

The thing that really separates these two contenders, though, is their impact on disease. Nuts are high in healthy fats, which makes them very good for our hearts. In fact, various studies have suggested that regularly eating nuts can reduce the risk of heart disease. Meat, on the other hand, shows a rather disturbing opposite trend. Regularly eating red meat has been associated with an increase in the chance of getting diseases such as cancer.

So, as round two draws to a close, meat is on the ropes.

Graphic showing a red and blue boxing glove

Round Three – Environmental Sustainability

*Ding Ding*

Photo of a nut tree alongside a photo of a hard of cattle

Research shows that meat has a much higher environmental impact than plants. So nuts are starting this round as the odds-on favourite. According to many studies, nuts have some of the lowest carbon footprints of any protein-source. Since most nuts grow on trees (with peanuts, as ground-growing legumes, the notable exception), their production can actually help to suck carbon dioxide out of the air. While aspects of their supply chain, from cultivation to transport, still release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, their carbon-storing capacity means they can have footprints close to zero. Meat, especially red meat like beef and lamb, is right at the other end of the scale with the highest carbon footprint, not only of protein-sources, but of all foods. This is down to emissions of methane from the burps of cows and sheep, as well as the huge land-requirements for grazing and the production of animal feed.

It looks like this contest could be drifting towards the knockout blow. But is there any room for a revival from the red corner? Any sign of slippage from the blue?

Water. This is where it gets a little more complicated.

Nuts have one of the highest water-use footprints of all protein sources, often exacerbated by their production in areas that are prone to drought. This means the production of nuts often requires the use of underground water sources, and the rain alone does not always satisfy their needs. This can be a big problem in certain water-stressed regions. Unfortunately, the water footprint of meat also leaves much to be desired. The production of lamb, beef and pork also requires a large amount of water, again often unquenchable by the rain. So meat doesn’t make up much ground here, but it’s an important consideration, and highlights that nothing is ever black and white.

Graphic showing a red and blue boxing glove

The Final Bell

*Ding Ding Ding*

So, after three rounds of sparring, which of the two contenders will come out on top of this enthralling brawl?

Round one was tough for nuts, as their omission from British kitchen tradition led to a shaky start. Their health-credentials helped them to dominate the second round, with round three beginning in much the same manner. The contest looked all but over, until the high water-usage of nuts exposed a chink in their sustainability shell. Meat was unable to capitalise though, with its high-carbon credentials leaving it staggering behind. Nuts emerge victorious, to win a place on our sustainable and healthy plates.

Footnote: For his thesis, Adam researched the role that nuts might play in the sustainable and healthy diets of UK citizens in years to come. He was hoping to understand if it’s feasible to produce more nuts across the world to satisfy increasing UK demand, and where these nuts should be imported from to resiliently increase UK supply.

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