This article was updated on January 11th 2023
When you tuck into a Snickers bar, a plate of chips with ketchup, or a nice piece of Nutella on toast, do you ever wonder how these products get to you? How many ingredients go into making them, and where all of these come from? The chances are that you haven’t, but your favourite foods and drinks have a whole series of different supply chains behind them, traversing the entire globe.
What Are Food Miles?
Food miles are the distances that your food travels from where it is grown to where it is consumed. They are used as a measure of the environmental impact of food production, along with factors such as transportation and greenhouse gas emissions. The term was coined by Professor Tim Lang, of City University London, and has now become widely used, but has also attracted criticism for not giving the full picture of food production’s impact on the environment: critics argue that the majority of emissions come at the production stage (beef production, for example, is responsible for between 7-18% of global greenhouse gas emissions), rather than during transportation. And then there’s water usage, food waste, pollution… the list goes on.
How Many Food Miles in…?
Nevertheless, distance must of course play a part, not to mention the fact that it’s interesting to see exactly what goes into the food and drink you consume, and where this comes from.
With that in mind, whether it’s the tomatoes that go into your ketchup, or the cheese in your Big Mac, each component has travelled hundreds, maybe thousands of miles to get to your plate, whether by air, sea or road. We did some research to find out what goes into making some of our favourite foods (and drinks), and the results may surprise you…
Nutella – 28,731 miles per jar
(estimated distance to London)
Everyone’s favourite chocolatey hazelnut concoction is one of the more “international” foods on our list. With the hazelnuts travelling over 2,260 miles from Turkey, the palm oil from Malaysia (6,485 miles) and the sugar and soya coming from Brazil (5,447 miles), it all adds up.
Snickers – 50,791.5 miles per bar
Easily the most well-travelled product on our list, Snickers bars contain ingredients from all over the world. Some of these include: coconut oil from the Philippines (6,795 miles), peanuts from Argentina (7,291 miles) and vanilla extract from Mexico (5,454 miles). However, it may surprise you to learn that Snickers bars contain some more local ingredients, with skimmed milk powder and egg white powder coming from the UK.
Coca-Cola Classic – 17,195.5 miles per can
The full ingredients of Coke are naturally a closely-guarded secret, but from what we could find, this fizzy beverage contains sugar and caramel from Brazil (5,496 miles) and coca leaves from Peru (6,075 miles). However, Coke also contains water and phosphoric acid, both of which are local to the UK, which brings its total down.
Skittles – 29,558 miles per 55g pack
With many components coming from Brazil (sugar, glucose syrup and carnauba wax – 5,496 miles), and others coming from South East Asia (palm fat – 7,424 miles), tasting the rainbow is the last step in a very long journey for the average pack of Skittles.
Big Mac – 8,050 miles per burger
For such a global icon, the average Big Mac in the UK is surprisingly local, at least compared to some of the other foods on our list. This is thanks to McDonalds’ commitment to using local producers for their food items. As such, the buns come from Oxford (77.5 miles), the beef patties from Scunthorpe or Waterford, Ireland (270 miles on average), the lettuce from Chichester or Spain (557.4 miles on average – it’s seasonal), the cheese from Northern Ireland (509.2 miles) and the Big Mac sauce from Lancashire (222.6 miles). Only the onions and pickles come from further afield: the onion from the US (4,484 miles) and the pickles from Turkey (1,930 miles).
Starbucks coffee – 5,427 miles on average per cup
While there are no additional ingredients in your standard cup of black coffee, Starbucks sources their coffee blends from all over the world. As such, in this case, we’ve taken the average distance from the various sources. As expected, these are some of the world’s biggest coffee producers, including: Colombia (5,290 miles), Ethiopia (5,503 miles) and Sumatra (6,738 miles).
Heinz Ketchup – 18,804 miles per bottle
With tomatoes sourced from China, California and Spain (average 3,864 miles), sugar from Brazil (again! 5,496 miles) and spices from India (4,648 miles), the much-beloved condiment travels over 18,800 miles before it gets to your plate.
How Much Do Food Miles Matter?
In recent years, there has been a massive shift in food production and its impact on the environment. Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) attributes this to, among other factors, the globalisation of the food industry, and the centralisation of shopping behaviour toward larger, out of town supermarkets (and associated travel).
As such, there is an argument for shopping locally – support local businesses and cut down on carbon emissions from food transportation. However, this ignores two major factors: food production often creates more emissions, even when it’s “local”, and only buying local could potentially cut off vital income from producers in developing countries. If we are committed to decreasing carbon footprints, we should be looking at the types of food we eat, rather than where it comes from, and purchasing Fair Trade where possible.
So, while food miles do matter, in that the distance travelled, how foods travel and the impact this has on the environment is something we need to consider, realistically it’s only part of a much more complicated story.
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