WHO Europe outlines healthy and sustainable diets workstream

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The World Health Organization (WHO) European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases have released a fact sheet on their workstreams around healthy and sustainable diets. This work is intended to guide European national policy on shifts towards more sustainable diets.

Many public health authorities and governments use WHO recommendations as a basis to guide decision making. The outlined workstreams indicate WHO’s interest in nutrient profiling, processed foods and beverages, digital marketing and sustainable food systems. Below are some details on individual workstreams:

  • Food profiling model for healthy and sustainable diets

Current food profiling tools (that score foods on nutritional and environmental factors) will be reviewed and used to develop a new standardised tool. This tool will then be used to inform the creation of sustainable food labelling.

  • Data platform for modelling healthy and sustainable dietary patterns

An open-access data platform that will allow governments to assess their national dietary intake data and model diets to meet local nutrition needs and sustainability goals.

  • Guidelines on ultra-processed plant-based foods

Investigating the nutritional composition of ultra-processed plant-based foods (such as vegan burgers) sold in retail and restaurants. This will be used to inform guidelines on ultra-processed plant-based food intake.

  • Healthy digital food environments

An online platform, called FoodDB, that compiles nutrition data from online food retailers, with the intent of making healthy online food choices easier.

These projects will have important ramifications for the treatment of sustainable nutrition by European authorities. Quantifying the nutritional composition of novel foods is essential in understanding their benefits and risks. It is to be hoped that this project will extend to consideration of the bioavailability of the nutrients in the novel foods.

The greater availability of nutritional data to researchers and policy-makers should allow for more evidence-based decisions on food policy shifts. However, the challenge of creating food profiling tools that can fully capture the nutritional and environmental aspects of different foods is clear: nutrition and environmental impacts are very broad topics, and unifying data from both of these fields in order to compare different foods directly will not be straightforward.

Moreover, there is a difference between healthy, sustainable diets and a globally sustainable food system. A diet that meets health, nutrition and sustainability goals for an individual may not be feasible for feeding the global population. For example, increasing the production of a certain food that contributes to one individual’s healthy, sustainable diet may result in less sustainable production of that food. It is essential to consider both what is healthy for individuals and what the global food system can sustainably produce for the global population.

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Feed Our Future event to bring science, government and industry together

The Riddet Institute is this week hosting an event to bring together food system stakeholders and decision makers for accessible evidence-based discussion of the key global issues and the local decisions that we need to make.

Sustainably feeding a growing population is a global problem, but also one for New Zealand to consider. Where does our reputation for high quality, premium food products fit in a hungrier world? How can kiwi innovation and ingenuity make a difference to the global future of food?

The event will explore the current conversation of sustainable food, bringing moderation and balance to what is often a debate of extremes. National and international experts in the fields of nutrition, food waste, food systems, life cycle analysis and consumer science will speak on these important issues, with open discussion from the attendees.

This dialogue will inspire our future decisions and put New Zealand at the front of the sustainable food systems debate.

Dairy in a low-cholesterol diet

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A recent study on dairy’s role in cardiometabolic health has added further nuance to the topic by indicating the different outcomes total dairy and individual dairy products have on biomarkers of disease.

Cardiometabolic diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic renal failure are now the number one cause of death in our aging population. The main cause of these diseases is an unhealthy lifestyle. A broad range of biomarkers (indicators of a disease that can be found in the blood) have been identified and can be used to determine onset. Some studies have linked dairy intake with increased risk of individuals developing cardiometabolic disease. The present study tested these associations to further understand how dairy products can influence cardiometabolic health by measuring biomarkers.

The cross-sectional study included over 35,000 women aged 50 to 79, spanning 40 clinical centres across the US. Concentrations of 20 different biomarkers were compared.

The key findings were:

  • Lower triglyceride (type of fat associated with cardiometabolic disease) was associated with greater intake of total dairy. This was driven by full-fat dairy products
  • Greater total milk and yoghurt intake were associated with lower concentrations of total cholesterol, while greater butter intake was associated with higher cholesterol concentrations
  • Greater total dairy, total and full-fat cheese and yoghurt were consistently associated with lower concentrations of glucose, insulin and C-reactive protein (all of which are biomarkers of cardiometabolic disease).

These findings do not support conclusions of dairy playing a role in cardiometabolic disease, and more specifically the health benefit for low-fat dairy product varieties over full-fat, as promulgated by some health authorities. The challenge in finding consistent outcomes for the role of dairy in the onset of cardiometabolic disease calls for further research in the area. What has been made obvious is the critical role that nutrition plays in the health of our populations and that individual products, rather than food groups, should be considered.

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Increasing the nutritional and environmental benefits of crops

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An integrated technique has been used to find the multiple benefits of introducing legumes to crop rotations in a recent Frontiers study. Not only are these promising findings for developing sustainable food systems, but also a step forward in holistic life cycle analysis measurement.

Adding legumes (beans, peas, lentils) to crop rotations has been shown to increase the nutritional value for livestock and humans while reducing environmental impacts and resource costs. In one example, introducing a legume crop into a typical rotation in Scotland reduced external nitrogen requirements by almost half, with no detriment to the crop’s human nutrient output.

The benefits of legumes range from environmental to nutritional. Unlike many other crops that require additional nitrogen to grow, legumes obtain sufficient nitrogen from the air around them without the need for additional fertilizers. This occurs through a symbiotic relationship with root bacteria that transforms nitrogen in the air to a useable form for plants. Legumes also reduce the need for fertiliser in future crops as they enrich the soil with nitrogen. In terms of human nutrition, legumes are rich in protein, fibre, folates, iron, potassium, magnesium and vitamins.

The novelty of this study was in its comprehensive comparisons across ten crop sequences, 16 impact categories, lengthy timeframes and various European locations. The authors went beyond simple footprinting techniques that only consider the environment or nutrition in isolation. Instead, they considered the footprint of delivering a specific quantity of nutrition. This provides a welcome and realistic perspective on the value of the whole system, with inter-crop effects and overall efficiency of cropping sequences considered.

This work has shown that the choice of functional unit has an important influence on the apparent efficiency of different crop rotations. It also indicates a need for further research using functional units that represent the multiple nutritional attributes of crops for livestock feed. The results of this study illustrate the benefit of using whole-system thinking when designing interventions to drive sustainable food systems.

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Climate change impacting our productivity gains

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Global efficiency in agricultural productivity has been known to increase over time, but a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change has illustrated the significant gains we have lost due to climate change.

Productivity growth can be understood as increasing the output of crops and livestock when using the same inputs. As concerns around food security and prices, input costs and the availability of resources grow, the idea of increasing agricultural productivity offers a more positive outlook for the development of the food system.

The Global Agricultural Productivity Report released in 2019 claimed agricultural productivity is growing at 1.63 percent globally. In order to see sustainable production of our food system and supply for a future population of 10 billion in 2050, they estimated that this productivity needs to increase to 1.73 percent.

The novel findings from the recent paper are the first to consider the historical trends and impact of climate change on agricultural productivity. Econometric models are combined with various climate scenarios to illustrate the impact climate change has had on agricultural productivity over the decades. The key finding is that the relationship of inputs and outputs have not been able to reach full potential in productivity gains due to climate change. This has been quantified at 21% of potential agricultural productivity being lost since 1961. This is equivalent to losing 7 years of productivity growth.

Our productivity gains are not currently enough to sustainably supply our growing population, and the scales are tipped further by the impact climate change has on our food production.

While it is disheartening to be confronted with further impacts that climate change is having on our food system, this research does provide tools to increase the robustness of future risk analysis with an increased understanding of climate change rates and impacts.

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Finding harmony between plant-based and meat-eater diets

A recent survey commissioned by Finnish plant-based brand “Beanit” was carried out to explore the dispute on various diets, and the barriers this creates in behaviour change. It highlights the contrasting opinions of consumers, with vegetarians and meat-eaters alike feeling judged on their food choices.

Key findings of the study were that 64% of the surveyed population found public discussion around diets polarising, with 44% wanting to increase vegetarian foods in their diets. It is known that there is a gap between consumer intent and action, and this survey highlights the effect public scrutiny can have. Consumer discomfort between information and action can lead to a defensive or confrontational approach. This type of conversation is counterproductive in the transition to a reduced impact lifestyle. It fosters an environment of extremity between two groups.

The survey suggests a flexitarian diet offers the largest opportunity for Beanit’s plant-based market. The company takes the perspective that small changes made by large populations produce better results than a small group cutting out a certain behaviour entirely.

Although Beanit’s value in this may be to urge consumers to adopt a plant-based diet to increase sales, they addressed the results through a campaign named “Meat Saturday”. This encourages consumers to eat meat once a week on Saturdays. It looks to facilitate inclusivity between the labelled meat-eater and plant-based groups, offering the idea of mutual acceptability between diets.

The takeaway from the survey is relevant to any disruptive industry or product claiming to be a sustainable option. A positive, objective and inclusive narrative must be encouraged to facilitate progress towards sustainable behaviour change.

Glossary

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DELTA Model version 1.3 launched

The coloured bar shows the global average availability of each nutrient. The error bars show the range in availability in different parts of the world (10th and 90th population percentiles based on country level averages). While there are only a couple of nutrients where global availability is below target, the level of variation results in many more nutrients of concern at a country level.

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The latest version of the DELTA Model is now available online. It features new insights into national and regional nutrient availability, as well as nutrient trade.

It’s common to talk about food trade between countries or regions, but less common to think about the movement of individual food nutrients around the world. For example, New Zealanders are probably very aware of our country’s exports of animal-sourced foods (like dairy and red meat), but likely haven’t thought about what this means in terms of the calcium or iron included in these exports.

DELTA 1.3 presents the domestic production of 29 food nutrients, the export and import dynamics of these nutrients, and how this measures up to meeting per capita per day nutrient targets for a country. It also presents how this availability differs in different parts of the world, showing the user the inequalities in access to different nutrients. The results are adjusted for waste, non-food uses and bioavailability in the same way as the rest of the DELTA calculations.

Another change is to the splash page first displayed to the user. This now features an outline of the global nutrition challenge that the world is facing, as well as a description of how the DELTA Model was designed to contribute to our understanding of this complex challenge. Further additions and changes can be found in the release notes.

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Could this be the end to ‘dairy-free’ or ‘creamy’ plant-based food in the EU?

The Dairy Ban or ‘Amendment 171’, saw a narrow majority vote by the European Parliament in October 2020, preventing imitation of dairy products by non-dairy products.

This result saw a rally of 21 campaign groups, climate activists such as Greta Thunberg, and large dairy-alternative food producers such as Oatly protest the amendment. A petition against Amendment 171 created by ProVeg has received over 400,000 signatures. Further discussion on the amendment between Council, the Commission and the EU Parliament will continue this year.

Currently dairy terms in the EU are protected by law to ensure integrity of dairy products and to reduce misleading claims by non-dairy products. “Imitation or evocation” of existing dairy products is banned, including terms such as “almond milk” or “vegan cheese”. Amendment 171 furthers this to censor all use of dairy-related language, packaging and imaging in the marketing of plant-based foods. This would see dairy-alternative food producers banned from using terms such as “yoghurt-style”, “creamy”, or packaging that resembles the traditional milk carton and yoghurt pot shapes.

A recent study published in the Journal of Animal and Environmental Law found no difference in consumer perception of products coming from animals, or not, when branding incorporates wording traditionally associated with animal products, e.g. “milk”. Furthermore, omitting these words can lead to confusion from the consumer on taste and use of the product. However, a nutritional aspect was not included in the study, which could provide interesting results in the consumers perception of the product’s nutritional benefit.

Whether the dairy industry secures exclusive rights to the use of dairy-related language or not, this discussion comes down to the consumer. At the heart of both arguments is the push for consumer awareness. Further awareness will allow consumers to make informed decisions on the products they are purchasing and the impact these have on the environment and their health. All of which feeds into the sustainability of us as individuals, communities and globally.

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Bottom trawling dragging up more than just fish

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A recent paper in Nature includes evidence that bottom trawling releases more CO2 emissions from carbon stores in marine sediment than the entire aviation industry.

Similar to how our soils store carbon, our oceans stock the largest amount of carbon on the planet. The paper suggests a framework to prioritise protection areas of the ocean that would see multiple benefits. These include preserving biodiversity, increasing yield for fisheries and securing marine carbon stocks.

Marine sediment stores carbon, which is released during bottom trawling, a common practise of fisheries. According to the present study, this activity was estimated to release 1 gigaton of carbon every year. Comparatively, the aviation industry releases about 918 million tonnes. However, all is not doom and gloom, as the paper also identifies areas that would be most beneficial to protect. They calculated 90% of the carbon disturbance could be avoided through protecting only 4% of the ocean, although this comes at a cost of 27 million tonnes of fish. Level of benefit in biodiversity, carbon and food are illustrated in various conservation strategies, dependent on the value placed on these factors.

This is not to say we should all rush to the airport, nor does this suggest forgoing fish and chip Friday. Rather, our ever-expanding database on the impact of human activities is a reminder of the system view we must take when exploring what a ‘sustainable’ lifestyle may look like. The global food system is full of intricacies, and the impact some food products have on the world could far surpass what seems reasonable.

As our breadth of knowledge from these individual studies increase, as do our capabilities in modelling and drawing evidence-based insights on our global food system. By also suggesting beneficial protection areas, rather than exclusively focusing on the impacts of bottom trawling, this paper may spark conversation rather than accusation between the fisheries industry and marine conservation groups.

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Could regenerative agriculture offer a solution to a more sustainable food system?

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Regenerative agriculture is a hot topic after suggestions it offers a partial remedy to climate change. However, for a concept surrounded with such high expectation, there is very little clarity around the definition of regenerative agriculture or it’s evidence-based benefits. The National Science Challenge, Our Land and Water New Zealand have published a white paper calling for further clarity and scientific testing of claims.

The term regenerative agriculture identifies an approach to food and farming systems that originated in the US focusing on five farming principles that claim to regenerate the land, rather than degrade it as many conventional practices have been found to do. These principles are: minimise soil disruption, keep soils covered, plant diverse crops, reduce fertiliser use, and practise rotational grazing. This idea has been embraced by the general public, leaving agricultural sectors around the world challenged to apply it to their own unique systems.

In our hunger for a quick fix to climate change, many have jumped on the assumption that regenerative agriculture could be a farmer’s way out of the flack often received for agriculture’s impacts on the environment. However, this may be an overly optimistic stance to a challenge that far exceeds the implementation of a regenerative mindset.

The white paper comes from over 200 representatives of the New Zealand agriculture sector to determine the next steps for regenerative agriculture research. Some of the recommendations include:

  • There is a requirement for further evidence-based research and trials on the true benefits, both environmental and economic, of regenerative agriculture for the farmer and food producers by assessing marketability and export value.
  • Application of the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ differs between countries. Although the term was conceived in the US, the mindset can be applied to other countries as long as it is made relevant, i.e. bringing in cultural aspects and maximising what the land may already have – for New Zealand this can be focusing on retaining soil carbon levels while the US looks at increasing soil carbon.

If food and farming is to be truly regenerative then a framework based on validated science is required. In the meantime, perhaps the concept of regenerative agriculture can act as a reminder to farmers and consumers of the care and consideration our environment deserves.

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