Environmental pawprints

Consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental impacts of their diets and lifestyles, with everything from transport to dinner coming under scrutiny for its footprint. Pets are also coming under the microscope, principally for the role of their diets in the wider food system.

Most research to date has focused on cats and dogs, due to their high domesticated populations globally and industrial food production systems. Both also consume food with a relatively high content of animal-sourced ingredients: around a third of the energy in cat and dog food is animal-sourced, compared to a fifth for people. In the US, cats and dogs consume around 20% as much food energy as the human population.

Quantifying the environmental impact of cat and dog food is challenging since the majority of ingredients are by-products of human food production, e.g., bone meal or grain leftovers. In the DELTA Model®, some of these ingredients are classified under “Other uses”, while some fit in the “Inedible portion” class, showing some of the challenges around assessing these commodities. Some studies allocate all impacts of production to the primary product, making the by-product footprint-free, while others allocate impact based on the mass or economic value of the ingredients.

A recent study used the economic approach to calculate that 1-3% of global agricultural emissions are on account of pet food production, with lower percentages for land and water use. Another calculated the impact of the US pet population’s diet as around 25-30% of the human population’s, including land, water, and fossil fuel use.

One estimate stated that around 140 million people could be nourished using the energy currently entering the US pet food system. However, this was purely an energy calculation, and did not include full human nutritional requirements. Moreover, it does not account for the fact that the food sources demanded by people do not match the lower quality ingredients used in pet food. However, there are increasing purchasing trends towards premium products that do include substantial proportions of human edible food.

As the impact of pet food is not negligible, there have been calls to reduce this pawprint. This impact is affected by many of the same issues as the impact of the human diet: food waste, overconsumption (and consequent non-communicable disease), and the differing impacts of different food sources. Thus, similar solutions can be tried, such as minimising waste, correct portion sizing, and inclusion of environmental impact alongside nutrition in ingredient selection.

Pet ownership is on the rise globally. While the benefits of pets are clear to any pet owner, and have measurable benefits for human wellbeing, they cannot be left out of any holistic approach to measuring or reducing environmental impact.

Adding value with bugs 

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While the idea of eating insects may repulse some people, eating animal products from livestock reared on insects may be less off-putting. Black soldier fly larvae are an insect often produced as feed for livestock, and a recent research article has examined their potential in converting food waste to feed at scale.

Food waste represents lost inputs and value as well as having negative impacts of its own. While reducing food waste is an ongoing challenge, the production of some waste is inevitable. While we commonly think of food waste at the consumer or retail level, losses also occur higher up the supply chain with the producer. For many crops, such as soy and maize, only a few percent of the total production mass entering the human food supply chain are wasted, but this still amounts to millions of tonnes of plant matter globally each year. Conversion of this waste to animal feed is one way to include food waste in a circular economy, and to approach a zero waste system.

Some of the advantages of farming insects on food waste include the ability to co-locate production centres of any size locally to either food waste production or to the farms that will use the feed, due to the flexible growing conditions of these insects. Insect production near crop production has the added advantage that compost – the by-product of insect farming – can be returned to the field as fertiliser.

The yield of larvae for feed from food waste is up to 12%, over a period of as little as two weeks. The larvae are also a high-quality feed, with protein contents of 32-58%. In the case of many commercial aquaculture fish species, they can be a complete feed replacement.

The authors conducted an exploratory life cycle analysis of a hypothetical UK scenario where a large portion of food waste was diverted to insect production. They found that this resulted in a reduced environmental impact compared to biogas production from food waste for indicators such as global warming and land use, but greater impacts for indicators such as water consumption. The environmental impact of larvae production could be further slashed if electricity consumption were reduced or sourced renewably.

Commercial operations are already exploiting the larvae opportunity. In the UK, deals have been struck between supermarkets and insect farms to produce chicken feed from retail food waste. Elsewhere, “the world’s largest insect farm” has been proposed in the US, co-located with a large pet food factory.

Valorising unavoidable food waste and keeping the benefits within the food system has strong potential. Building such possibilities into food system models such as the DELTA Model® will allow their global potential to be better understood.

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Nudging consumer food choice

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Helping consumers to make healthier, more sustainable food choices is a target for many retailers. A recent scientific article has investigated the efficacy of various “nudging” techniques in cafeteria settings.

Nudging involves deliberately changing how choices are presented to consumers to influence their decision. In this study, the authors changed how cafeteria meal choices were presented to consumers in eight cafeterias in schools, universities, businesses, and hospitals in Germany, on two occasions three years apart.

The authors used an existing sustainability calculator that includes both environmental and health data to determine the most sustainable choice on a menu.

The nudges trialled were placing the most sustainable dish in the best position on the service counter; placing it at the top of the menu; giving it a more descriptive name; and adding sustainability labels with or without full explanation of the sustainability of the dish.

Simply placing an item in the best counter position led to a 22.5% increase in selection above baseline in the first study, but this dropped to 11.6% in a second study three years later (2019/2020). Extensive sustainability labelling and explanations had no effect on sales in the first study but resulted in a 15.9% increase in sales in the second study. The remaining nudges either had no significant impact, or actually led to sales decreases.

These results can be useful to those in the food service industry with an interest in increasing sustainable choices. The authors cite increasing sustainability awareness and consumer interest as a possible reason for the success of the extensive sustainability labels in the second study only. Counter position was by far the most successful approach, and also the easiest for the cafeterias to implement.

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Calcium deficiency at the global, national, and individual levels

This Thought for Food is part of a series on key nutrients identified as global challenges by the SNi DELTA Model®.

Calcium is an essential dietary nutrient: a trace element that is vital for healthy bodily function. However, a recent report composed by the Calcium Task Force (created by New York Academy of Sciences in partnership with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation) has identified widespread global calcium deficiency. This matches results of the DELTA Model®, which show that global calcium availability from food is only around two-thirds of the global population’s requirement. Here we provide a closer look at the role of dietary calcium, levels of deficiency, and ways forward to improve intakes.

The Task Force was composed of scientists with expertise in nutrition, particularly around micronutrients and child health. Their report aimed to gather the existing data on calcium deficiency and associated health outcomes to assist policy and dietary interventions to reduce the prevalence of deficiency.

Calcium intakes

About 99% of calcium in the body is in our bones. The rest plays a host of roles in our muscular, hormone and nervous system function, as well as in normal cell function. Calcium has a key skeletal role; therefore, calcium intake is particularly important in childhood and adolescence during bone growth. For all of these functions, calcium becomes important again in later life, such as during pregnancy and for bone retention in older adults.

Dietary calcium requirements are set largely based on bone health outcomes; that is, the intakes of people who have healthy bones are deemed sufficient intakes. This is due to the difficulty of understanding exactly how much calcium a person needs each day. When calcium intake is insufficient to meet bodily requirements, calcium stored in bone is used to maintain the other bodily functions requiring calcium, so no immediate effects are obvious. However, a sustained deficient calcium intake over a long period will to lead to depletion of bone calcium stores.

Another challenge in setting recommended intakes is the role of diet. Food sources of calcium, as well as what else is being eaten at the time of calcium ingestion, impacts calcium bioavailability. Plant antinutrients, such as phytic and oxalic acid, can bind to calcium and make it less easily absorbed by the gut. Vitamin D (another dietary micronutrient) is essential for active calcium absorption, and low vitamin D can increase bone calcium turnover and calcium requirement.

As a result of these challenges, there is variation in recommended intakes depending on which authority you ask: for example, the recommended intake range for infants in the Unites States and Canada is around double that recommended in the United Kingdom. Recommended intakes change as you age, and there is less variation in recommendations for adults – around 800 mg per day for most authorities.

Using the DELTA Model® Nutrient Supply and Density tools, the richest sources of calcium per unit mass are various oilcrops, spices and aquatic plants, all of which make minor contributions to global dietary calcium (<25 mg per person per day). The largest contributor to global calcium availability is dairy, accounting for 49% of global food calcium, or around 300 mg per capita per day. Next are vegetables, at around 100 mg per capita per day, cereals at around 50, and meat at around 25.

Global sources of calcium in 2018 from the DELTA Model® Nutrient Supply tool.

Calcium deficiency

The Task Force report stated that around 3.5 billion people worldwide are at risk of inadequate calcium intake, with the vast majority of these individuals located in Africa and Asia. Calcium deficiency is more widespread in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income nations. For those countries where data is available, it is children, adolescents, and individuals over 50 who are most commonly deficient, with women more likely to be affected than men.

We used the DELTA Model® approach to compare 2018 national nutrient availability data for demographically weighted national calcium requirements. We found that only 33 out of 170 countries had sufficient calcium availability to meet the needs of their populations. This sufficiency ranged from just enough to a 90% calcium surplus in Finland. Most of these countries were in Europe, with a few from Western Asia, as well as the US and Australia.

We found the lowest calcium availability compared to requirement in lower income countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. In some cases, as little as 16% of population calcium requirement was nationally available (Timor-Leste). While data quality is often poorer for these regions compared to Europe and North America, 77 out of 170 countries had less than half of their calcium requirements available, thus these calculations echo the results found by the Task Force.

Health outcomes

The greatest focus of studies on the health outcomes of calcium deficiency relate to bone health.

Osteoporosis (brittle bones) is linked to extended low calcium intake and increases the risk that bones will break under stress. Osteoporosis disproportionately affects women, particularly over the age of 50. Calcium and vitamin D supplementation have been shown to reduce fracture rates in older people in some clinical trials, but this affect is not always observed. Rickets is a similar condition mostly observed in children and linked to low calcium and/or vitamin D intakes.

Interestingly, despite the fact that lower income countries tend to have lower calcium intakes, they also have lower rates of bone fracture than high intake countries. However, the report authors caution that these lower income countries have poorer quality health data and smaller elderly populations, among other confounding factors. Studies on bone mineral density and fracture risk often show contrasting results between and even within regions. Furthermore, many regions lack data on bone health, making causative associations difficult.

In lower income parts of the world, the impacts of low calcium intake are often overshadowed by shorter-term outcomes of malnutrition, such as anaemia, wasting and stunting, as well as infectious diseases. Of current interest is the potential role of calcium intake in pregnancy disorders of hypertension and related mortalities.

Other research has investigated relationships between calcium intake or supplementation and a broader variety of health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, and kidney stones, with varied and sometimes contradictory outcomes. Dosage and target population appear to play a role, but there remains much to be understood about the role of calcium in health.

Evidence is mixed on the role of calcium supplementation in various health outcomes, although large health organisations state that intakes within the recommended boundaries should carry no health risk for most populations. Table reproduced from Li et al. 2018

Increasing calcium availability and consumption

While there is still a lack of consensus on the exact calcium intakes necessary for consumption, the number of individuals globally not meeting even the most conservative recommendations merits intervention.

Calcium supplementation is widespread in high-income nations: more than half of US women over the age of 60 received supplements in the early 2000s. Supplementary calcium is absorbed at a similar rate to dietary calcium, but the latter has been shown to have more of an impact on bone health, likely due to the smaller but more frequent intake of calcium in food than in a single supplement dose. Some studies have reported adverse effects of (particularly high) calcium supplementation related to various health outcomes, but the position of large health organisations is that intakes within the boundaries of dietary recommendations should have no adverse effects.

From a food perspective, those countries with the lowest calcium intakes are most commonly those with low dairy intakes. High European dairy consumption matches our results that these countries had the highest 2018 calcium availability. Increasing the consumption of calcium dense foods, such as dairy, nuts, seeds, and whole fish will not only improve calcium intakes, but also the intakes of other essential nutrients, due to the nutrient dense nature of these foods.


The final recommendations of the Task Force report for future work were: to progress towards consensus on the true global prevalence of calcium deficiency; to obtain more data on global calcium intakes, particularly in lower-income, higher-risk countries; and, to clarify the role of calcium in fracture risk and bone mineral density. The authors also noted the challenging absence of some method to determine the calcium status of an individual, given there is currently no single biomarker or health outcome that does so.

What can be said incontrovertibly is that deficient calcium intakes are common worldwide. While the full extent and impact of this deficiency is uncertain, that should not prevent action to improve intakes toward recommended levels.

The SNi team thank Professor Connie Weaver, expert in mineral bioavailability and the role of calcium in human nutrition, for her contributions to this Thought for Food. Prof Weaver was an author on the Task Force report.

Aquaculture’s footprint

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Aquaculture is a growing competitor to capture fisheries, now accounting for almost half of global fish production for human consumption. Sustainable aquaculture appears an appealing alternative to stretched wild populations. However, like all food production it has an environmental impact, which has been quantified in a recent publication.

The authors developed a sustainability index that includes the local food requirements, food economic value, energy, water, and carbon emissions of aquaculture around the world. The index awards a score out of 100 to each country based on its performance in these areas, with 100 being global best practice.

The average score across all producing countries globally was 26. Uruguay achieved the highest score of 74, with all other countries scoring less than 50. China, India, and Indonesia are the biggest players in global aquaculture, and all had scores of 35 or lower. China was responsible for nearly 60% of global aquaculture production, and accounted for just over half of aquaculture’s water footprint and carbon emissions in 2018. As with production of many foods, more developed countries had lower impacts per food produced than developing countries.

Globally in 2018, aquaculture used 1.76 million TJ of energy, 122 cubic kilometres of water, and produced 260 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. This is about the same amount of energy as used annually in Norway, about the same amount of water as needed for a quarter of global wheat production, and 0.47% of total anthropogenic emissions.

This analysis does not capture the nutritional value of aquaculture production, which is particularly important for essential fatty acids. The authors also state the large variation between the environmental impacts of different production systems (e.g., marine versus pond) and species. However, an understanding of the current state of global aquaculture informs targets for improving this, to ensure that the continued expansion of aquaculture will be sustainable.

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WHO evidence review on plant-based diets

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The European Regional Office of the World Health Organisation has released a fact sheet reviewing the evidence for the impact of plant-based diets on health and sustainability. The document was released in response to increasing discussion of the concept of “plant based” foods and diets in the European region. They define such diets as “emphasizing foods derived from plant sources coupled with lower consumption or exclusion of animal products”.

In Europe, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are the major health concern, with cardiovascular disease alone accounting for more than half of all European deaths. Many NCDs can be linked to diet, and specifically to low consumption of vegetables and fruit. Indeed, in more than half of the European countries, daily vegetable and fruit consumption recommendations are not met.

Several studies have identified the reduced burden of many NCDs, especially diabetes, in the vegetarian and vegan population. They note the generally lower BMI and all-round healthier lifestyle of individuals who choose these diets as a contributing factor, as well as the diets themselves.

Reductions in NCDs from more balanced diets would be expected to have benefits for health, and thus reduce health-care expenditure. Environmentally, there may be benefits to reducing the impacts associated with high consumption of animal-sourced foods, such as greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss.

The greatest risks associated with increasingly plant-based diets are for nutrient intakes. The fact sheet encourages proper planning of these diets to account for the reduced supply and bioavailability of nutrients such as iron, vitamin A, B12 and D, and zinc, as well as choosing foods fortified or supplemented with these nutrients.

The authors also warn against blanket associations between plant-based and healthy. Many highly or ultra-processed foods are plant-based, but not all such foods can be described as healthy. Examples such as imitation meats and milks are given, as highly processed plant-based foods containing added sugars, flavours, colours, emulsifiers, and salt. Little is currently known about the nutritional or health impacts of such foods if forming a major part of the diet, as this is still an emerging product group.

The report concludes that the adoption of plant-based diets can be beneficial, and that even incremental changes towards such diets may have benefits. They recommend that foods in such a diet be chosen that are minimally processed and ensure adequate nutrient intakes. Increasing vegetable and fruit consumption, particularly for those not meeting recommendations, should certainly be a target for European authorities.

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Nutrition research using smartphone apps

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Tracking population dietary habits is notoriously difficult, from cohort recruitment to the patchy recollections of what someone ate 24 hours ago. A recent article in Nature Communications approached diet studies via a freely available smartphone app, allowing a large cohort to be assessed with minimal commitment from the participants.

Data from over a million app users, who added on average nine entries to their digital food record each day for an average 197 days, was matched up with demographic and location data to understand the consumption habits of a US cohort.

Their results matched existing knowledge on food environments and dietary habits: high income, higher education, high supermarket access and low fast-food access (the latter two determined by location), all correlated with lower BMI, higher fruit and vegetable consumption, and lower fast-food consumption. One exception was a slight association between high income and high BMI.

The authors also matched their location data to the predominant ethnic group, which was possible due to the zip code level resolution of the data. Again, these results reinforced existing data on the prevalence of consumption of specific foods, and the prevalence of obesity, but across a broader area than previously possible.

This paper shows the power of repurposing existing digitalised data for nutrition research. Such large, long-term, detailed sampling of the US cohort would have been extremely challenging without the availability of an already popular app. Moreover, the privacy of individuals was protected, and the app developers donated the data from the research, facilitating a more refined understanding of their nutrition.

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The risks of dietary risk studies

Two recent correspondence articles published in The Lancet have highlighted some of the challenges in global dietary intake and risk estimation studies. These studies are held in high regard and widely used, so their quality is of great importance.

The first article highlights the differing estimates of two global dietary intake studies: the Global Dietary Database and the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study 2017. Both report country-level intakes of food groups among adult populations, but are calculated quite differently: the former largely from aggregated dietary survey data, and the latter largely from national level food availability data.

The outcomes of the two approaches showed wide variation in many countries: more than 10-fold differences in several countries across multiple food groups. Among these were consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, an important target for reduction. Inaccurate estimation of consumption can lead to inaccurate or disproportionate estimates on public health.

The second article also considers the GBD study, but compares the dietary disease burden estimated in the 2017 study with the recently published 2019 GBD study.
The burden on human health of diets low in fruit, nuts and seeds, vegetables, and specific fatty acids had more than halved. Meanwhile, diets high in red meat moved from the 15th largest contributor to diet related disease burden, to 5th, with 36 times higher deaths attributed to these diets than were found in the 2017 study.

The cause of these changes was altered methods in calculating disease burden. The latest study assumed relationships between high red meat diets and heart disease, breast cancer, stroke, diabetes, and colon cancer, whereas the earlier study only included the last two conditions. It also set zero intake as the optimum for minimising health risk, while the previous study used a moderate intake value. These health associations are contended in the scientific literature, as described fully by the authors . A response has since been published, explaining that the upcoming 2020 study will wind back its estimates on meat following further changes to methodology.

The importance of these global studies of dietary intake and associated health outcomes cannot be questioned: there is an urgent need for this data to inform public health decision making. However, these studies are often among the most widely cited and reused in public health policy, thus their conclusions have far-reaching consequences.
The authors of these articles emphasise the importance of having multiple models to identify areas of uncertainty. The results also highlight the weaknesses of relying solely on food availability data, rather than consumption. The articles feature calls for stronger dietary data in low- and middle-income countries; standardisation of food group classifications and disease burden estimation; and caution when interpreting the reliability of such estimates.

PLANET food system explorer launched

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GOAL Sciences have recently launched their new online tool for viewing the movement of food through the current global food system. The visual, interactive nature of the tool is accessible to anyone with an interest in where food comes from, and where it ends up.

The PLANET tool uses data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation on global food production, trade, processing, and end use. The user can examine the flow of food at a global or national level, for either total food mass or total food protein.

For example, a user might be interested in cereal production. They can use the tool to see how much of each cereal crop is produced around the world (nearly 3 billion tonnes), that around half goes to processing into food, a third into animal feed, and the remainder into uses like next year’s seed, biofuel production, or is wasted along the supply chain.

The PLANET tool is complementary to the DELTA Model®: both use the same data as a foundation, so the two can be used in tandem. PLANET allows the user to visually understand how food flows in today’s world, while DELTA shows you the nutritional value of that food to the world, and lets you explore changes to the system in the future.

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The true cost of food

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Many researchers have proposed scores and methods for reducing the nutritional value of foods down to a single number – as covered in a recent Thought for Food. A new method takes an approach rooted in population dietary intakes.

There are many challenges to this: which nutrients to include? How to weight components without introducing bias? A recent paper has avoided these issues by including all nutrients in the Australia and New Zealand Nutrient Reference Values, weighted by the degree to which the Australian population under- or overconsumes them.

The NRF-ai metric (Nutrient-Rich Food Index – adequate intake) means that foods containing under consumed nutrients like calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6 and zinc will receive higher scores than those containing the same amount of vitamin C or phosphorus, which are consumed at adequate levels by most of the population. Conversely, foods containing free sugars will be penalised, as intake of these is above recommendations in most populations.
The score can be made specific to age and gender groups, as the prevalence of deficiency for each nutrient varies between these groups. Ultimately, this leads to a metric that ranks a food item on its ability to address the nutritional needs of the population.

There are many applications for this metric for comparing foods. In the paper, the author considers the score per $ retail price, to understand the cost-effectiveness of a food for meeting nutritional needs. Per environmental impact examples are also given.

NRF-ai represents an unbiased approach to reducing the nutritional value of a food down to a single number. While this approach still loses information compared to the full nutritional composition, it is still valuable for comparisons between like products. A similar approach is applied by the DELTA Model® for the nutritional value of food items for meeting global nutrient requirements.

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