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Comparing apples with oranges: on the functional equivalence of food products for comparative LCAs



In this article, we present an innovative way of deriving comparable functional systems for comparative life cycle assessments (LCAs) of food products. We define the functional unit as the contribution of one or more foods to the nutrient composition of a weekly diet and, after a product substitution, employ a product system expansion approach to search for an alternative set of products which provides an equivalent nutritional composition.


Replacement is regarded within the context of a weekly diet. The comparable diet is a solution to a linear problem which finds the diet that is most similar to the starting one, subject to nutritional and/or other constraints that guarantee a minimum dietary quality. The formulation gives priority to selecting food products according to popularity.


We illustrate our method with two examples. We show that a baseline diet containing 3.6 servings of apples a week is equivalent to a similar diet in which the apples are replaced with 3.6 servings of oranges and servings of strawberry and kiwi are removed. These changes are necessary mainly because of differences in the vitamin C content between apples and oranges. The second example is a replacement of all meat in a weekly diet by a soy-based meat substitute. In this case, additional fish products need to be consumed to make up for a lack of selenium and essential amino acids.


We present an innovative and objective way to overcome the challenge of comparing two or more food products in a comparative LCA. Our approach is systematic and finds the alternative diet that best meets the nutritional criteria as well as reflecting the food preferences of the population. The method selects products according to the role they play in the dietary pattern. Moreover, the method is flexible enough to allow for different selection criteria and other nutritional and non-nutritional constraints.

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We thank Corné van Dooren of the Netherlands Nutrition Centre for his invaluable help with defining the nutritional restrictions.

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Correspondence to Marcelo Tyszler.

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Responsible editor: Greg Thoma

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Tyszler, M., Kramer, G. & Blonk, H. Comparing apples with oranges: on the functional equivalence of food products for comparative LCAs. Int J Life Cycle Assess 19, 1482–1487 (2014).

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