I recently tested seven of the best food carbon footprint calculators.
Doing so quickly taught me that there are two main types of food footprint calculators. Most of them calculate food emissions for one of two scenarios:
- Individual meals and recipes
- Your annual food carbon footprint (aka “foodprint”)
The goal of this test?
To see which calculators provide the most comprehensive estimates of the carbon footprint of the food you eat.
Turns out, some are far better than others. Here’s what I learned.
Best Food Carbon Footprint Calculators
- The Vegan Society Carbon Food Calculator: Best for Individual Meals & Recipes
- CoolClimate Calculator: Best for Annual Food Carbon Footprints
- BBC Climate Change Food Calculator: Honorable Mention
- Zero Foodprint Calculator
- CleanMetrics Food Carbon Emissions Calculator
- WWF Footprint Calculator
- CarbonFootprint.com Carbon Calculator
1. The Vegan Society Carbon Food Calculator: Best for Individual Meals & Recipes
For calculating the carbon footprint of a meal, a calculator is about as useful as the food database behind it.
If the database is limited, or its foods are poorly chosen, it will be hard to estimate the footprint of many of your meals.
The Vegan Society’s calculator has a robust food database paired with a user-friendly interface. It contains hundreds of food and drink products.
Accordingly, when I used it to estimate the footprint of a day’s worth of my own meals and a day’s worth of meals on a stereotypical American diet, it contained the most food items of any calculator tested.
This calculator can’t estimate your annual foodprint, at least not in any easy way. But no calculator I tested can easily do both. For an annual estimate, you’ll need a food footprint calculator designed for that purpose. Which brings us to…
2. CoolClimate Calculator: Best for Annual Food Carbon Footprints
The CoolClimate Calculator is technically not a food footprint calculator. Rather, it’s a calculator for estimating your entire carbon footprint.
(In fact, it’s our recommended carbon calculator for US residents in our guide to the best carbon footprint calculators.)
But it separates its estimates by category, meaning you can use it to estimate your food carbon footprint by itself.
To estimate your foodprint, it asks for your daily servings for a variety of food categories (I recommend selecting “Advanced” for a finer-tuned result). Rightfully so — what you eat matters much more for your carbon footprint than where it comes from or how it’s packaged.
The ability to choose the specific types of food you eat is what makes this my recommended calculator for calculating your annual food footprint. Most calculators simply ask how often you eat meat.
Use the CoolClimate Calculator to estimate your annual foodprint in one of two ways:
- Calculate your entire carbon footprint and separate out your food carbon footprint at the end
- Go directly to the “Food” tab and calculate your food footprint by itself
I strongly recommend the first option. Calculating your entire carbon footprint gives you a more complete view of all the sources of your personal emissions.
You may learn that, like most people, your diet is not the largest contributor to your carbon footprint. It’s an insightful realization.
For instance, emissions from driving are my own worst offender. Accordingly, driving less has reduced my carbon footprint by much more than dietary changes.
Note: The CoolClimate Calculator estimates your entire household’s carbon footprint. To estimate your individual footprint, indicate that one person lives in your household in the “Getting Started” tab.
3. BBC Climate Change Food Calculator: Honorable Mention
The BBC calculator doesn’t let you calculate the carbon footprint of an individual meal or recipe. Nor does it let you calculate your annual food carbon footprint.
Rather, it estimates the carbon footprint of your annual consumption of a single food or drink item.
At first glance, it may not seem that useful. However, from testing it out alongside all the other calculators I came to believe the opposite.
The main benefit from using a foodprint calculator is that it informs and provides context for the carbon intensity of your dietary choices. The best food footprint calculators give you a sense of perspective.
That is where the BBC calculator exceeds. It automatically compares the carbon footprint of your selected food or drink item to others in its category. It also equates how much you consume to other emitting activities, such as driving and heating your home.
This calculator is similar to the Vegan Society calculator but with a slightly smaller database and poorer user interface.
It’s a good alternative for calculating the footprint of individual meals. It contained 74% of the foods in a day’s worth of my own meals and 70% of the foods in a day’s worth of meals in a stereotypical American diet.
The CleanMetrics has a comprehensive database — especially for common processed foods — but its interface is clunky.
You can’t enter a weight of less than 0.1 pounds, either. This limitation makes it difficult to estimate the footprint of individual meals that often have smaller amounts of ingredients.
The calculator breaks apart production, transportation, and waste emissions in its estimates. Doing so lets you see how minor transport and waste emissions usually are relative to the food item’s production emissions.
Like the CoolClimate calculator, the WWF calculator is for calculating your entire carbon footprint. It’s user-friendly, consisting of multiple choice questions rather than asking for specific consumption amounts.
The questions must be answered sequentially, and you need to answer every question to see your results.
The only question this calculator asks directly about the types of food you eat is how frequently you eat meat — it doesn’t even ask which kind. The three remaining questions ask about food waste, eating out, and where your food comes from, which generally account for a minor percentage of the carbon footprint of your diet.
Here’s another calculator for estimating your entire carbon footprint. It has one small section in its “Secondary” tab that you can use to get a very rough estimate of your annual foodprint.
It’s far from complete. The calculator simply asks what your diet is like and how much you spent on food during the time period for which you’re calculating.
Clearly, how much you spend on groceries is highly dependent on where you live and many other factors. And beef has a much bigger carbon footprint than some other kinds of meat, such as chicken. Simply asking how much meat you eat isn’t the best way to estimate your diet’s footprint.
How I Reduced My Food Carbon Footprint
Once you calculate the carbon footprint of the food you eat, you might feel motivated to reduce it.
For some inspiration, here’s what I’ve done so far to reduce my own:
- Eat more plants and fewer animal products. This is the most impactful decision by far. The types of food you eat matters the most for your food carbon footprint.
- Invest in kitchen appliances that make it easier to make plant-based meals. My Vitamix blender makes it so much easier to make a daily fruit and veggie smoothie. One of my roommates also just bought a rice cooker which has made it easier to prep rice and quinoa. The caveat here is that there are emissions associated with the production of any good. Be sure to keep your appliances for a long time and use them enough such that your net emissions are reduced.
- Swap out one animal product at a time. Incremental change suits me better than radical change. Thus, rather than cut all animal products out of my diet in one fell swoop, I’m slowly replacing ones I consume with plant-based alternatives. For instance, I recently swapped out eggs for tofu.
- Remember that plant-based packaged foods exist! My outsider’s perception of plant-based meals was that they all needed to be prepared from scratch. It actually took me a while before I remembered that there are lots of plant-based frozen dinners and prepared meals. I doubt they’re very healthy, but when you’re craving something quick and easy, remember that there are plant-based options you can turn to.
- Keep in mind that your diet is likely not the largest source of your personal emissions. I’m like most people — transportation and home energy are the largest contributors to my carbon footprint. Remembering this helps me keep a sense of perspective. I’m more focused on limiting how much I drive on a daily basis than I am with eating plant-based 100% of the time.
How I Tested
Here’s how I tested the calculators:
- Compiled a list of the most popular food carbon footprint calculators based on the Ahrefs Organic Traffic at the time of writing
- Separated the calculators into two main categories: those for calculating the carbon footprint of individual meals and those for calculating a person’s annual food carbon footprint
- For the meal calculators, I created two meals plans. One was a typical day’s worth of my own meals and the other a day’s worth of meals on a stereotypical American diet.
- Used each meal calculator to estimate the carbon footprint of food for each daily meal plan, assessing ease of use and comprehensiveness of its database
- For the annual foodprint calculators, I calculated my annual food footprint with each, assessing ease of use and comprehensiveness of its calculations
- Ranked the calculators based on the test results
The Bottom Line
After testing the comprehensiveness of seven top food footprint calculators, I think the Vegan Society Carbon Food Calculator is the best for estimating the carbon footprint of individual meals, while the CoolClimate Calculator is the best for estimating your annual food carbon footprint.
The BBC Climate Change Food Calculator is an anomaly — designed for neither purpose — but it’s great for easily comparing the carbon intensity of common foods. It’s a great learning tool, so I think it’s worth a special mention.
Once you know your “foodprint,” it’s natural to wonder how you can reduce it.
Read at all about climate change or the environmental impact of our food system and you’ll quickly realize that animal products have a much bigger carbon footprint than plant foods.
If you’re trying to reduce your diet’s carbon footprint, the best place to start is by eating more plants and fewer animals.