What is sustainable nutrition?
Sustainable Nutrition refers to the ability of food systems to provide sufficient energy and essential nutrients to maintain good health of the population without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their nutritional needs (A Path from Sustainable Nutrition to Nutritional Sustainability of Complex Food Systems). It is nutrition that is produced and delivered in a way that is mindful for people, the planet, and society.
On this page:
Dimensions of sustainable nutrition
To ensure the health of people, the planet, and society, it is important to think additively about these four factors.
It’s estimated that the world’s population will be 9.6 billion by 2050 and that we would need the equivalent of 3 planet Earths to produce enough food to feed that amount of people if we do not change our food production practices (United Nations World Population Report 2019).
Around 30% of the food we produce globally every day is wasted (FAO 2019), yet there is still much of the world that is undernourished.
Through the lens of sustainable nutrition, we have to be mindful of questions like:
- Is the nutrition tailored for the people for which it is intended? Are they overnourished or undernourished?
- Is the food safe?
- How was the food produced? How did that production impact the environment, and could there be a better choice?
- Is a healthy food realistic for this person to obtain? Can they access it and afford it?
- Is food appropriate for the target community’s dietary behaviour, religious beliefs, or local food system?
Health & nutrition
The first aspect of sustainable nutrition is getting the right food and nutrients to the right people. It includes the healthfulness or nutrition quality of foods, as well as food safety. This means reducing intakes of nutrients linked to disease (e.g. sugar, sodium) while increasing nutrients that are beneficial for health (fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, etc).
Globally, there are 2 billion people who are currently overweight or obese while, at the same time, there are 690 million people who go hungry or are malnourished every day (WHO 2020). These two groups of people have very different nutrition needs. It is important to consider for whom a nutrition solution is intended and tailor it to that individual or group. In countries where most of the population is overnourished, many regulations and initiatives will focus on calorie, sodium, and sugar reduction. Programs targeting areas where a large proportion of people are undernourished, there is more of an emphasize on delivering calories, protein, and essential vitamins and minerals to prevent disease (e.g. vitamin A, iron).
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In overnourished groups, reducing calories of food and beverages can help improve the food environment to make it less likely to contribute to overweight and obesity.
Due to its link to heart disease and stroke, excess sodium intake is gaining more attention each year.
Added sugar is a contributor to excess weight gain and a target of initiatives and regulations in many countries.
Protein is especially important for growing children, active agers, people trying to lose weight, and highly active individuals. It can be hard for some of these groups to consume enough high quality protein at the right times throughout the day.
Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
These food groups are some of the healthiest foods people can consume, but few meet their daily recommendations globally.
Healthy food must be safe food, so this aspect of health and nutrition is paramount to all endeavors in sustainable nutrition. It can be a difficult challenge in a food system that emphasizes long travel times and shelf life as well as a focus on ingredients perceived as natural.
Benefits that target specific health needs like immune health, digestive health, active ageing, etc. are becoming a cornerstone of the food and beverage landscape.
Measurements of the environmental impact of food systems typically include greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, water use, and land use, but can also include factors like biodiversity, pollution, etc. Food waste is a prime target of many initiatives because ~30% of food produced globally is wasted every day. Food systems account for up to 35% of global GHG emissions, occupy ~40 percent of Earth’s land area, and is the largest driver of biodiversity loss (FAO WHO report on sustainable diets).
Initiatives to improve the sustainability impact of food systems that are tied to health and nutrition include:
The solutions to food waste are varied and can depend on where in the food system the waste or loss is happening. Reducing waste at production plants, reusing waste when appropriate, or recycling/upcycling waste are some of the targets you might find in different sustainability strategies.
There is a global focus on more sustainable protein sources due to the high land use, water use, and GHG production of animal farming. This is primarily seen as a shift toward more plant-based protein sources like legumes and pulses. However, animals have an important role to play in sustainable food systems because they can occupy unfarmable land and act as recyclers of food waste streams. Other emerging areas of consideration include insect protein or cellular agriculture and precision fermentation.
Fermentation has the ability to produce many food types that we obtain typically from a farming based system today in a healthier and more sustainable way
The economic impacts of Sustainable Nutrition and Sustainable Healthy Diets could be the most wide-reaching because they can be felt by all, to some degree.
For those experiencing malnutrition, the economic pressure facing them may be that they cannot afford safe, healthy food and are subsequently forced into either food deprivation or are only able to afford cheaper, less nutritious foods. According to research conducted by the FAO and WHO, “More than 820 million people go to bed hungry every night. In 2018, 1.3 billion people experienced food insecurity at moderate levels, meaning they did not have regular access to nutritious and sufficient food.” (FAO Sustainable Healthy Diet Guiding Principles).
One example of this is the concept of food deserts, which are regions of a country in which individuals do not have the option of purchasing nutritious food due to limited income and/or means of transportation. If the closest supermarket that sells fresh produce is 30 km away from where someone lives, but they do not have a car or means of realistically reaching that supermarket, then that food is not available to them. In these situations, families will often end up buying groceries from a local gas station or other market with limited supply of healthy foods. These regions are common in developed countries where food is abundant for most of the population.
“Malnutrition is costly to the health of individuals, their wellbeing and productivity.”, according to Sustainable Healthy Diets Guiding Principles published by the FAO. Achieving a world of Sustainable Nutrition requires social, cultural, environmental, and economic factors to be considered as society works to provide nutritious, reliable, and safe food sources globally.
Another layer to consider when forming a system that supports sustainable nutrition is diets that are appropriate for different socio-cultural beliefs and backgrounds. Just as there are numerous diverse cultures around the globe, so too are there diverse cultural elements to nutrition.
“Sustainable diets need to be socio-culturally acceptable and economically accessible for all.” (FAO Sustainable Healthy Diet Guiding Principles)
A nutritious diet in one part of the world may not be appropriate for another. For example, meat is rich in many essential minerals like iron or zinc. Despite some cultures lacking these nutrients in their diet, meat may not be acceptable to their social or religious beliefs. As a result, finding culturally appropriate sources of those nutrients is essential.
Ensuring access to healthy, sustainable, and culturally acceptable foods are all vital elements in transforming the way our society lives and eats. Considering factors such as socio-cultural values and standards will help a sustainably nutritious food system succeed.
How can sustainable nutrition be achieved?
Thinking additively when sourcing and producing food is an approachable way to create a more sustainable food supply. In other words, try to embed multiple aspects of the dimensions of sustainable nutrition described above into your core thought process, how you choose the foods you eat (as a consumer), or how you source materials or create new products (as a food producer).
This idea of sustainable nutrition is driving a transformation in food production systems globally. Many companies are embedding this additive thinking into sustainability strategies and commitments. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals serve as the roadmap for many of the sustainability strategies and goals companies are committing to globally.
The UN roadmap goes into detail on specific actions that can help achieve each goal, targets and indicators that can be used as ways to establish industry-specific goals and progress, and in-depth resources on programs that can be beneficial to goal outcomes. Refer to the United Nations page to learn more on the SDGs.
Bringing sustainable nutrition to life: A nutrient profiling case study
Science-based targets are key to achieving effective change in our food system. Having transparency to nutrient content of foods and ingredients in the context of how they do or do not contribute to sustainable nutrition across the entire supply chain is one way to help facilitate change. Nutrient profiling is a method used globally to differentiate foods that contribute positively to a healthy diet from those that can increase risk of chronic disease. There is no universally used nutrient profiling model; many different systems exist and are used for different purposes, but we are beginning to see more profiling models like the Traffic Light System or Nutri-Score used on food and beverage packages to guide consumers toward healthier choices. Although nutrient profiling is primarily used for consumer education or population-level nutrition research, it can also be used to evaluate product portfolios and their contribution to sustainable nutrition in the food and beverage industry.
Kerry is leading the way among the ingredient supplier industry by establishing a clear, science-based approach to nutrient profiling across its portfolio. By using nutrient profiling in a similar way, companies can hold themselves accountable for the nutrition of the products or ingredients they produce, set goals to improve the nutrition they provide consumers over time, make shifts to prioritize strategies that favor more nutritious products in the portfolio, and establish nutrition guardrails for future innovation. Combined with science-based targets for environmental, economic, and socio-cultural metrics, nutrient profiling can act as a cornerstone of change for driving the food system toward one that is more sustainably nutritious.
What should a sustainable diet look like?
The best sustainable diet is one that improves health outcomes, reduces the environmental impact of food production and consumption, is affordable, and is culturally acceptable.
Tips for a sustainable diet, adapted from Steenson, S., Judith L. Buttriss. Healthier and more sustaianble diets: What changes are needed in high-income countries? Nutrition Bulletin, 46, 279– 309.
- Follow your regional dietary guidelines
- Eat more fruits and vegetables
- Diversify and shift the balance of protein intake towards more plant-based sources of protein
- Limit foods high in fat, salt, or sugar
- Choose sustainable sources of fish and seafood
- Waste less food
A recent scientific review used optimisation techniques to understand which foods and diet patterns help meet nutritional recommendations while lowering environmental impact. The six recommendations above come from the findings of this study. For more details on how specific foods impacted nutrition and sustainability measures, refer to the full study linked above.
The study authors searched the scientific literature and identified 29 studies from high-income countries (e.g. the UK) published within the last 10 years that met our search criteria. These studies looked at the impact of different diets as a whole, instead of focusing on changes to single foods in isolation (e.g. meat or dairy products).
All studies included in the review estimated the environmental impact of different diets using at least one indicator, such as the associated GHGE, or land or water use.
The main finding of the study was that diets that were more plant-rich and closely aligned with government healthy eating guidelines (the Eatwell Guide in the UK) were nutritionally adequate while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30% and water use by 4% compared to current UK diets. Many countries have their own dietary guidelines emphasizing similar eating patterns to the Eatwell Guide (more plant-based foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, etc). The most appropriate diet would be the one tailored for its respective country.