Ensuring healthy nutrients in sustainable food requires insight

Report from conference on sustainable food 19 June 2018

The world’s population is growing rapidly, but our natural resources are finite. So we have to be more careful with them. But what should we do? Simply eat fewer animal and more vegetable products? Well, it would seem that it’s a bit more complicated than that and this became clear at FrieslandCampina Institutes’s conference on sustainable food held in Utrecht on 19 June 2018.

Under the leadership of chairman Prof. Frans Kok, various experts discussed scientific developments, possible dietary adjustments and the opinions of food professionals and consumers on this subject. The overwhelming interest in this conference (more than 300 attendees and a waiting list) clearly demonstrates that sustainable dietary advice is a hot topic.

Definition | A sustainable and healthy diet is one that provides sufficient nutrients and energy, that has a low impact on the environment and is also affordable, available, culturally appropriate, safe and traded fairly (FAO, 2010)

‘Just being healthy is no longer enough’, said Prof.  Pieter van ’t Veer, professor of Nutrition, Public Health, and Sustainability at Wageningen University & Research (WUR). ‘We must focus much more seriously on the relationship between the environment and our dietary patterns. Continuing with our current levels of food consumption means we are pushing the limits of our earth.’ However, bringing about changes in the current food system is not simple, adds Van ‘t Veer. ‘There are many elements to be considered in terms of sustainable diets. On the one hand, there are the earth’s biophysical boundaries while, on the other, the food must be healthy, affordable, reliable, tasty and easy to eat.’ Somewhere in between, there is space for a dietary pattern that we have called the SHARP diet: Sustainable, Healthy, Affordable, Reliable and Preferable.

Nutrient provision

Ensuring healthy nutrients in sustainable food requires insight 2

Food production worldwide is responsible for a high level of CO2 production. Completely replacing animal products would have a hugely positive impact on the environment. Van ’t Veer: ‘However, calculations show that this would have massive consequences for the provision of nutrients. The intake of calcium, iron, zinc and essential amino acids, in particular methionine, would reduce. An adequate vitamin B12 provision is impossible.’ But, there are also positive effects in relation to an increase in the consumption of fruit, vegetables and grains, such as an increase in the intake of fibre and a reduction in the intake of saturated fats.

There is another downside too. ‘Flavours become more bland’, explains Van ‘t Veer. ‘With a shift towards fewer animal and more vegetable products, flavour moves from savoury and bitter to more neutral. A shift from the current 60% animal protein to 40% animal protein would be the best option, according to Van ’t Veer.

Definition of a sustainable diet

In contrast to what you may think, sustainable diets are not a new idea. ‘The concept was introduced in 1987’, explains Dr. Hans Dagevos, senior researcher at WUR. ‘Since then, there have been many definitions of the concept of a sustainable diet, from very broad in terms of the economy and policy, to much more specific in terms of our food footprint, land use and greenhouse gases.’ The most common definition is the one used by the FAO (see frame).

‘When it comes to sustainability, we have strong sustainability and weak sustainability’, explains Dagevos. Weak sustainability involves changes that a manufacturer can implement in a product or its production; as consumers, people don’t have to do anything and there is no radical change in lifestyle. Strong sustainability involves changes to the consumption style, such as living more modestly, wasting less or eating a vegetarian diet. Recently, strong sustainability has been evident in concepts such as minimalism and micro-homes.

The consumer needs guidance

According to Dagevos, sustainable diets do not necessarily also mean a sustainable lifestyle. There are, in fact, many aspects that impact upon the environment, aside from food. This could include eating a vegan diet but travelling by plane. Dagevos also suggests that there is an incorrect assumption that health-conscious consumers are automatically interested in sustainability. International research has clearly shown that there is very little understanding among consumers that their food choice relates back to the environment. According to Dagevos, consumers needs guidance to clarify that they are impacting upon the environment via their dietary choices. Advice is also required in relation to how the sustainable choice can be made in a healthy manner.

Sustainability and the Food Pyramid

‘One of the things that we can do to reduce pressure on the food system is target and bring down waste levels’, says Dr. Corné van Dooren, expert in sustainable diets at the Nutrition Centre. ‘One third of available food is currently lost.’ The Nutrition Centre has therefore implemented a range of campaigns and tools which focus on reducing waste.

The transition towards more sustainable food choices is also supported by the Nutrition Centre. ‘One quarter to a third of our total CO2 footprint comes from food’, explains Van Dooren. ‘31% comes from red meat, 18% from dairy, 13% from drinks such as coffee, beer, wine, soft drinks and fruit juices. If we want to change something, it makes sense to examine consumption of these products. Eating according to the Food Pyramid reduces the CO2 footprint, particularly among men, compared with food consumption according to the Food Consumption Survey. If people opt for the more sustainable options in the product groups, greenhouse gas emission reduces even further. More sustainable choices include fruit and vegetables from the region and products that are in season, white meat (chicken) instead of red meat and water instead of coffee, soft drinks or fruit juice.

‘When the new Food Pyramid was created in 2016, sustainability was taken into account’, explains Van Dooren. There are 7 rules for sustainable eating (see frame). Van Dooren: ‘Not only for health reasons, but also for the sake of sustainability, there is a limit of 500g of meat per week and red meat is no longer shown in the protein section.’ The latest advice is to eat fish once a week instead of twice a week. More products made of vegetable-based protein are also recommended, such as pulses once a week and a handful of nuts every day. The consumption of dairy has been maintained at the current level, i.e. 2-3 portions of dairy and 40g of cheese. ‘This is also seen in other communications and campaigns’, adds Van Dooren. There are tools for considering animal welfare or measuring the footprint  of your personal food choices too.

Nutrition Centre 7 rules for sustainable eating

  1. Waste as little food as possible by cooking and buying only what you will eat.
  2. Eat less red and processed meat. Instead, eat pulses, unsalted nuts and sustainable fish every now and then.
  3. Do not eat more dairy than you need.
  4. Do not eat more than you need. Try not to eat products outside the Food Pyramid, such as snacks.
  5. Drink as little sugary drinks and alcohol as possible and, instead, choose tap water, tea and coffee.
  6. Eat sufficient wholemeal grain products, fruit and vegetables.
  7. Choose environmentally-friendly fruit and vegetables by checking countries of origin and the season.

Many of the sustainable choices are also healthier.

Sustainable dairy production

The dairy sector has already made a great deal of progress when it comes to sustainability. This was clear from the presentation given by Bregje van Erve, Manager of the sustainable dairy chain at The Dutch Dairy Association (Nederlandse Zuivel Organisatie (NZO)). ‘The sector would like to develop climate neutrally, improve animal welfare, improve access to pastures and retain biodiversity and the environment’, according to Van Erve. She adds that there is a whole range of innovations and resources which provide information, encouragement and also assistance to the farmer. There are also a number of mandatory measures which are reinforced with fines in the event of violation. Monitoring is conducted by the WUR and the targets are being further elaborated. Van Erve: ‘When it comes to energy-efficiency, the targets for 2020 have already been achieved, however, developments are continuing. Companies are increasingly generating energy via solar panels or wind turbines. Energy is often also produced by means of fermenting manure (waste to energy). This has an immediate impact on the emissions of other greenhouse gases.’

Animal welfare involves the use of antibiotics, for example. This has already been reduced by half and antibiotics may no longer be given as a preventative measure. Van Erve: ‘This is controlled via strict checks and sanctions so the farmer is careful about complying.’ Work is also being carried out on the life expectancy of cows. The healthier the cow, the longer it lives and can go on providing milk. This is also beneficial for the climate. Van Erve: ‘Research is being conducted into how milk production can be sustained for as long as possible in cows. That would mean fewer cows are needed.

At the moment, 4 out of 5 farmers have reinstated access to pasture land. This means that cows spend at least 120 days per year, for at least 6 hours a day, outdoors, in a meadow. ‘This is a social issue,’ explains Van Erve. ‘People like to see cows in meadows. This fits within the landscape you expect from the Netherlands and helps promote the profile of farming companies.’

The actual impact

The fact that a more sustainable dietary pattern is more complicated than simply eating more vegetables and fewer animal products is further explained by dietician Lionel van Est from Nutrisoft. He presents the Optimeal® model with which the impact of product groups on the environment can be demonstrated. The model takes into account the provision of nutrients. This should remain at an optimum level and as close to the consumer’s usual dietary pattern. Van Est: ‘Calculations in the Optimeal® programme demonstrate the effect of changes in nutrient sources, in relation to a dietary pattern, on environmental pressure. If meat is eliminated, the nutrients that are provided by meat must come from other food sources. And these products also put pressure on the environment’.

The overall environmental pressure exerted by around 200 products can be found in the ‘Life Cycle Analysis’ (LCA) and these products have therefore been included in the calculation programme. With the help of these 200 products, a complete diet has been created, that corresponds to the average dietary pattern of a Dutch person. ‘The model shows that the message is not as simple as you might expect. Reducing beef has a clearly beneficial impact on CO2-emissions and land use. Reducing or increasing dairy, however, has little impact on the sustainability parameters. What does help is only eating what you need and opting for local products instead of more exotic choices.’ Anyone wishing to find out more about the programme and the calculations: see the article about it in ‘VoedingMagazine’.

The dietician and sustainable diet advice

Dieticians consider sustainability to be a significant aspect in the dietary advice that they provide and expect it to play an increasingly important role in relation to advice in the future. This is clear from the figures that Anja Evers, director of the Dutch Association of Dieticians (NVD), presented. The NVD, together with the FrieslandCampina Institute, has conducted research about sustainable food among NVD members. Evers: ‘The response involved 133 members. The results show that dieticians principally think of the environmental impact of food, when considering sustainable diets. Issues such as affordability, safety, the provision of nutrients and a good price for the farmers are not regarded as aspects of sustainability. In terms of their own food, sustainability is high on the agenda. At the moment, 40% indicate that sustainability plays a role when creating a diet or dietary advice. Just under 40% say this is not the case.’

Sustainability is current

The panel discussion at the end of the conference clearly showed that sustainability is a ‘hot item’ at the moment but that there is a large group of dietary professionals who do not feel compelled to actually do something about it. Anja Evers, one of the panel members, suggested that dieticians could start by providing sustainable dietary advice. ‘As a professional group, we know more than the average consumer and can apply the 7 rules of the Nutrition Centre.’ ‘Of course, there is a difference between the first and second line’, added panel member and dietician Elly Kaldenberg. ‘In the second line, dietary problems are generally much more acute and sustainability therefore often slips into second place. However, you can still take the issue into account, even if it’s on a different level.’ ‘It will always be about a customised approach when it comes to sustainable dietary advice’, says Evers. ‘And that’s precisely what a dietician is good at.’

Panel member Fraukje Rosier, tutor at Arnhem Nijmegen college: ‘It is clear that the dietician can make a difference; it is the dietician that holds conversations about diet and who therefore has a chance to do something about sustainability.’