How water-wise is our diet?

Did you know that food production can have a major impact on the environment, i.e. on greenhouse gas emissions, global warming and climate change. In addition to the emission of harmful gases during the production and transportation of food, a large amount of water is also consumed for production. The lack of water combined with global warming increases the problem, and our diet directly affects water shortages. This is because a large amount of water is consumed to produce our favourite foods. The research being conducted applies to Australia because it is considered the driest area, the driest inhabited continent on Earth, but the problem can be considered anywhere equally important.

A study recently published in the journal Nutrients looked at traces of water shortages in the diet of 9,341 Australian adults, which included more than 5,000 foods. The amount of water used for food production was also measured, and whether the water was scarce or abundant at the place where it was drawn from. The food system accounts for about 70% of global freshwater use. This means that a concerted effort to minimise the water used to produce our food - while ensuring our diet remains healthy - would have a major impact in Australia. The average Australian diet has been found to have a water footprint of 362 litres per day. It is slightly lower for women and lower for adults over 71 years of age.

Foods with some of the highest water-scarcity footprints were almonds (3,448 litres/kg), dried apricots (3,363 litres/kg) and breakfast cereal made from puffed rice (1,464 litres/kg).

In contrast, foods with some of the smallest water-scarcity footprint included wholemeal bread (11.3 litres/kg), oats (23.4 litres/kg), and soaked chickpeas (5.9 litres/kg).

It may surprise you that of the 9,000 diets studied, 25% of the water scarcity footprint came from discretionary foods and beverages such as cakes, biscuits, sugar-sweetened drinks and alcohol. They included a glass of wine (41 litres), a single serve of potato crisps (23 litres), and a small bar of milk chocolate (21 litres).

So, for example, it takes 21 litres of water to make a small chocolate bar, which means that our healthy diet, which would exclude this chocolate bar, can save 21 litres of precious water for just one chocolate bar. So any of us can ask ourselves: how water-wise is our diet?

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