Ingredients, manufacturing, transport, packaging all play a role in shrinking or enlarging your dessert’s environmental footprint. Researchers from the University of Manchester in England, conducted a study on which desserts have the most and least sustainable qualities. They evaluated pie (apple), cupcakes (vanilla), a single cake slice, a cheesecake (frozen) and a whole cake (Britain’s favorite: Victoria sponge) based on a mind-boggling range of criteria.
From their results, we can extract some guidance on making choices for a store-bought dessert that’s sweet for us and for the planet.
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Scrutinize that ingredient list
Palm oil is one ingredient you want to avoid. An unfortunate-but-common dessert ingredient, palm oil not only has to travel a long distance, but also the production of palm oil is incredibly destructive for wild animals and their homes. Large swaths of habitats are destroyed, often burned, and replaced with palm oil plantations. Palm oil farming techniques pollute our soil and water, too. After a 2017 palm oil spill near Hong Kong, not only did dead, oil-coated fish wash up on the shores, conservationists reported that decaying palm oil could reduce the oxygen in the water and suffocate local aquatic life.
Choose shelf-stable over frozen
The energy needed to keep a dessert frozen–from the time it’s made, through its transport to a store, until you buy it–far outweighs that of a dessert stored at room temperature.
Whole cakes are a pretty safe bet
Although a whole cake usually includes ingredients that are a little tougher on the planet (milk, eggs, butter and sugar) it still has the lowest environmental footprint. A whole cake uses less energy, requires less packaging than cupcakes or a cake slice that are often wrapped in plastic and packaged individually.
Consider fruit fillings as an alternative
Pie isn’t perfect. Of the desserts studied, it comes in second for water usage (keep reading for number one). But, when you compare it to the other desserts that include climate-warming ingredients–milk, eggs, butter, cheese–pie might be your better option. Bonus tip: keep in mind which fruits might not have to travel too far to reach you.
Pick almost anything over cheesecake
Ingredients: sugar, eggs, cream cheese, palm oil. Storage and transportation: frozen. Water consumption: the most. From its climate-warming ingredient list to an energy-sapping production process, (think ozone depleting chemical use, water-intensive production to wide-spread land use) cheesecake comes up the shortest (by far) in almost every single category.
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