Enforcing the production of healthier pre-packaged meals could have a significant impact on climate emissions in the EU according to new research.

The study, assembled by environmental consultancy Systemiq, suggests food producers could cut annual greenhouse gas emissions by up to 48 million tonnes by adhering to global dietary guidelines.

Manufacturers could cut 39.4 megatonnes of CO2 emissions by aligning the content of their products to WHO dietary guidelines.

Additionally, aligning ready meal content to the EAT Lancet guidelines could reduce emissions further by 47.7Mt of CO2.

If manufacturers were required to follow these recommendations, “the climate benefit would be huge”, the report said.

WHO adult dietary guidelines recommend a diet high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and wholegrains with less than 10% total energy coming from added sugar, less than 30% total energy coming from fats and less than 5g of salt.

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The EAT Lancet Commission recommends “a plant-forward diet”, where fruit and vegetables should make up the majority of a person’s daily consumption. This is followed by whole grains, plant-based proteins, unsaturated plant oils, dairy, animal-based proteins, added sugars and finally, starchy vegetables.

Commissioned by environmental and food campaign groups Madre Brava and Fern, the study stressed that cutting the amount of meat in ready-meals in particular would have a “disproportionately positive impact”.

Meat was said to account for 62% of emissions in ready-to-eat meals, while fish accounts for more than a quarter.

This percentage increased in take-away meals, with meat products accounting for 88% of emissions in the meal.

As well as reducing overall emissions, the study also found that adapting ready meals to follow WHO and Eat Lancet guidelines could save EU consumers €2.8m ($2.9m) a year “due to reduced costs for ingredients used”.

Commenting on the study, Nico Muzi, managing director of Madre Brava, said in a statement: “Policymakers and big businesses hide behind the mantra of ‘consumer choice’ to avoid making food healthier and more sustainable.

“The reality is that many ingredients in ready-made meals are decided and chosen by very large supermarkets, fast food chains and catering companies.

“Regulating them could not only bring huge climate and health benefits, but also make healthier and more ready-to-eat meals cheaper and more accessible to people struggling to make ends.”

Alba Gil, policy manager of the European Public Health Alliance, added: “Legislation on ready-made meals is extremely powerful because it shows benefits on improving our health, caring about the planet, and potentially advancing equity for vulnerable populations, since they are often the target of unhealthy foods.”