Earlier this month, the Almond Board of California supported an educational session, “How Sustainability is Shaping the Shopping Cart,” at the annual SCAN (Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition) meeting of registered dietitians.
Kate Geagan, RD, author of several books on healthy, sustainable eating, and Sonja Brodt, PhD, a researcher at the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, shared their insights on the convergence of sustainability and health, and advice for dietitians on how to help consumers to eat a more sustainable diet.
Global interest about what’s in our food and how it’s produced has skyrocketed, driven by many factors and concerns, including animal welfare, degree and type of processing, ingredient sourcing, and the local and global environmental impact of our food choices. There’s also access to more information than ever before. Sustainable diets are a complex issue.
Aside from definition, how consumers decide which foods are sustainable varies. Research shows that labels with farm-to-table attributes, such as fresh, real and locally grown are most relevant. More abstract terms, such as sustainable or ethically sourced, are less salient, likely because their meaning and benefits are not clear.1 Still, consumers–particularly Gen Z and Millennials–are willing to pay a premium price for sustainably-sourced ingredients2, even if they’re not sure what it means. To meet demands, food companies and retailers have jumped on the bandwagon, offering products, and in many cases, entire branded food lines, that showcase natural, organic and sustainable attributes.
Sustainability, as a component of dietary recommendations, is now a front and center issue around the globe3,4,5,6,7 and these recommendations take into account the many different aspects of food production, from crop to consumer. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), is an “environmental accounting tool” considered to be the gold standard method for understanding the environmental impacts of foods. LCA evaluates everything it takes to produce a food, everything that comes from a food during production (such as waste), and the food’s potential environmental effects throughout its life span. The nutritional attributes of the food are then coupled with its environmental outcomes to portray a full and clear picture of a food’s influence from all angles. This information can help identify “hot spots” in food systems that can in turn be used to improve practices to make them more sustainable.
Examples of commodity foods, including almonds, were used to demonstrate how the LCA model works. Among the overall learnings about LCA– that place of origin in agriculture matters, environmental impacts can be complex, and plant-based foods tend to have lower environmental influence than animal foods –what happens at the end of the lifecycle of a food can be significant. Factoring in the use of byproducts by other industries, as well as what may be wasted during processing, is a critical step in LCA. In the almonds example, it showed how all three of its parts–shell, hull and kernel–are used, so nothing goes to waste.
Helping consumers make food choices that deliver on sustainability, nutrition and taste present leadership opportunities for dietitians to help shape the future of our food system. Dietitians were encouraged to share the benefits that typically come from eating a sustainable, plant-based diet, including lower risk of chronic disease, cost savings and evidence for greater longevity8,9 with their patients and clients. Emphasizing the significant role that home food waste plays in sustainability and how to help consumers minimize waste were also key points.
Diet-level environmental assessments that help food producers recognize gaps in their sustainability efforts, coupled with informed dietary choice and smart home usage of foods by consumers, offer an opportunity for all of us to play a part in helping the planet.
1 Hartman Group. Diners’ Changing Behaviors: Sustainability, Wellness and Where to Eat. 2015. http://store.hartman-group.com/content/diners-changing-behaviors-2014-overview.pdf
2 Nielsen. We Are What We Eat: Healthy Eating Trends Around the World. 2015. http://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/nielsenglobal/eu/nielseninsights/pdfs/Nielsen%20Global%20Health%20and%20Wellness%20Report%20-%20January%202015.pdf
3 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/
4 Live Well for LIFE. http://livewellforlife.eu
5 Health Council of the Netherlands. Guidelines for a healthy diet: the ecological perspective. The Hague: Health Council of the Netherlands, 2011; publication no. 2011/08E. ISBN 978-90-5549-845-1. https://www.gezondheidsraad.nl/en/publications/gezonde-voeding/guidelines-for-a-healthy-diet-the-ecological-perspective
6 Dietary Guidelines for the Brazilian Population. 2014. http://www.fao.org/nutrition/education/food-dietary-guidelines/regions/brazil/en/
7 Nordic Council of Ministers. Nordic Nutrition Recommendations. 2012. http://www.norden.org/en/theme/nordic-nutrition-recommendation
8 Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, Schulze B, Manson JE, Willett WC, Hu FB. Red meat consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: 3 cohorts of US adults and an updated meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011; 94:1088-1096. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/94/4/1088.full
9 Springmann M, Godfray HC, Rayner M, and Scarborough P. Analysis and of the health and climate change co-benefits of dietary change valuation. PNAS. 2016; 113(15):4146-4151. http://www.pnas.org/content/113/15/4146.full