What is chocolate’s biggest environmental impact?

By Oliver Nieburg contact

- Last updated on GMT

Reducing envionmental impact of milk powder may help improve chocolate's green credentials. ©GettyImages-urfinguss
Reducing envionmental impact of milk powder may help improve chocolate's green credentials. ©GettyImages-urfinguss

Related tags: Environment, emissions, Energy, Chocolate, Milk powder

Researchers have pinpointed the process that has the biggest environmental impact of chocolate production and consumption in the UK.

Raw ingredients, and in particular milk powder production, has the greatest impact on the environment, according to the study​ by researchers at the University of Manchester. 

Chocolate: 2.4% of GHG emissions in UK food & drink

The research, due for publication in the journal Food Research International​, evaluated the environmental impacts of chocolate made and consumed in the UK.

It found around 21 terajoules (TJ) of primary energy is consumed and 2.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2​ Eq.) are emitted annually to produce and supply 635.6 kilotons of chocolate products to UK consumers.

This means chocolate represents 2.4% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of the UK’s entire food & drink sector.

Chocolate life cycle

The researchers assessed molded chocolate, countlines and chocolates in a bag, which together make up 90% of the market.

They used a life cycle assessment and followed the ReCiPe impact assessment method​to assess six stages in chocolate manufacture: 

  • Raw materials (ingredients): ​production of sugar, milk powder, cocoa butter, vegetable fat, cocoa mass, flour, pasteurized eggs, salt, butter, whey powder and starch.
  • Manufacturing​: including water consumption and cleaning.
  • Packaging:​ primary, secondary and tertiary.
  • Distribution and consumption​: storage at a regional distribution centre and a retailer, and consumption at home.
  • Waste management:​ treatment and disposal of process and postconsumer waste.

“The results suggest that the raw materials production is the major hotspot across all impact categories,”​ wrote the researchers.

For example, raw materials made up between 49% and 66% of primary energy demand across the three chocolate formats (countline, bagged & molded) and 67% to 81% of the global warming impact.

“The impacts from the raw materials are largely due to milk powder production, while sugar and cocoa derivatives are significant contributors to some of the impacts,”​ said the researchers.

cows milked -GettyImages-Toa55
University of Manchester researchers say the vast majority of milk powder impact comes at farm level. They reccomend manure composting, a 20% energy reduction in milk parlors and looking at the cow's diet to reduce methane emissions. ©GettyImages/Toa55

Milk powder production

Milk powder accounted for 31% to 47% of primary energy demand from the raw material stage across the three chocolate formats.

The ingredient was also a major contributor to UK chocolate’s impact on fossil fuel depletion and ozone depletion.

The study team suggested chocolate makers target raw materials, particularly milk powder, to mitigate their environmental impact.

“For example, composting the dairy manure, reducing energy consumption in milk parlour by 20% and supplementing cows' feed with linseeds could together reduce the global warming potential of chocolates by 14%–19%,”​ they said.

The study found chocolate countlines have the highest contribution to total environmental impacts at UK level (37%–43%), followed by chocolates in bags (28%–33%).

“The results of this work will be of interest to policymakers, chocolate producers and consumers, helping them to make more informed decisions towards sustainable production and consumption of chocolate products,”​ said the researchers.


Food Research International
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2018.02.042
‘Environmental impacts of chocolate production and consumption in the UK’
Authors: Antonios Konstantas, Harish K. Jeswani, Laurence Stamford and Adisa Azapagic

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