The need to develop a global food system that delivers sustainable nutrition is enshrined in the UN’s second Sustainable Development Goal, which aims to ‘end hunger’ by 2030 through food security, improved nutrition and sustainable agriculture.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines sustainable diets as low in environmental impacts, nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy. They need to include socio-economic dimensions and ‘contribute to healthy life for present and future generations’.
But while the SDGs might have sharpened attention on sustainable nutrition, the latest data from the UN shows 800m people in the world are hungry, two billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies and two billion are overweight or obese.
The factors driving up global food insecurity, malnutrition and obesity are a complex web of interconnected issues, Hannah Theobald, Head of Nutrition at plant-based brand Quorn Foods believes. “Sustainable nutrition is key here as a wide range of interacting challenges, including climate change, energy prices, obesity, chronic disease, poverty, livestock issues and loss of biodiversity need to be considered alongside each other,” she observed.
The environmental and health impacts of food need to be considered in tandem if food and beverage brands are to deliver on the promise of sustainable nutrition.
“The health of people and our planet really go hand-in-hand and we can’t afford to think of them in isolation,” Theobald told FoodNavigator. “By prioritising foods that are nutritious and healthy, environmentally friendly, affordable and socially and culturally acceptable, as a society we can make a positive contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”
Not an ‘either/or’ situation
Theobald said we don’t need to choose between foods that are nutritionally and environmentally beneficial. “Fortunately, this isn’t an either/or situation.”
Indeed, research by the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) released last year concluded that if more people followed healthy eating guidelines, it would deliver the dual benefit of improved population health and reduced environmental impact.
“Shifting towards diets that align more closely with healthy eating guidelines, including less meat and higher amounts of plant-derived foods, is likely to offer environmental benefits (e.g. ~20-50% lower GHGE and land use across the studies we reviewed) and improve population health. This shift includes diversifying the choice of protein providing foods in our diet in favour of more plant-derived sources, including beans and other pulses (e.g. chickpeas, lentils), nuts, seeds, and nutritious plant-based meat alternatives (e.g. those based on soya or mycoprotein) that are not high in fat, salt or sugar,” the BNF stated.
In its review of literature on the topic, the BNF pointed to one study that found that following the healthy eating recommendations in the UK government’s Eatwell Guide would lower GHG emissions of current UK diets by 30%. Significantly, it would also reduce the mortality risk of the population as a whole by 7%. Previous analysis found if everyone in the UK ate a diet in line with the Eatwell Guide, there would be a 45% reduction in greenhouse gases and a 49% cut in land use. It would also reduce the number of new cases of heart disease, stroke, cancer and type 2 diabetes in the UK, BNF noted.
Are alternative meat products the answer?
While the number of shoppers who identify as vegan or vegetarian remains a small niche, a growing number of people are trying to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets. For example, a recent survey of 7,500 people across ten European countries – part of the EU-funded Smart Protein project – found 7% of respondents follow plant-based diets, while 30% of people identify as flexitarian eaters.
“Many consumers across the globe are shifting to a more flexitarian approach – meaning they’re trying to eat more plant-based foods and beverages versus completely removing animal-based options from their diets – and are motivated by perceived environmental attributes, as well as nutrition benefits,” ADM’s Michelle French, Director of Global Sustainability Programs, observed citing the company’s Outside Voice research.
“Shoppers are viewing plant-based purchases as not only better for themselves, but also their communities and the planet. Plant-based options can certainly help support these efforts, particularly when grown using sustainable farming practices, such as cover cropping, reduced tillage, and nutrient management.”
A more plant-based diet is – unsurprisingly – something that Quorn is fully behind. As one of the world’s most recognisable meat-free brands, the business has worked to position itself at the intersection of environmental sustainability and plant-based nutrition.
“Consuming less meat and higher-amounts of plant-derived foods like beans, pulses, nuts and seeds and nutritious meat alternatives like mycoprotein - the main ingredient in Quorn products - would improve population health, while also delivering environmental benefits,” Theobald told us.
The latest Quorn Footprint Comparison Report, published by the Carbon Trust in 2021, shows that Quorn Mince has a carbon footprint 95% lower than beef mince in the UK, with a land footprint that’s 94% lower and a water footprint that’s 92% lower. "That’s a trend that’s repeated throughout all of our products,” Quorn’s nutrition expert stressed.
Quorn Sausages have a carbon footprint at least 81% lower than pork, while Quorn Pieces & Fillets are 75% lower than typical chicken, and Quorn Nuggets (UK) are at least 29% lower than chicken nuggets.
“If a family of four swapped beef mince for Quorn mince for just one meal they can avoid 9.26kg of carbon emissions, which is equivalent to the emissions generated by charging 13 smartphones for a year and would save 6,000 litres of water," Theobald elaborated.
But plant-based shouldn’t be seen as short-hand for ‘healthy’, she continued, insisting that innovators in the category need to ‘increase the focus on nutrition quality’.
“Quorn mycoprotein is actually a fungal-derived protein rather than a plant-based one and this distinction is quite important, as it’s key to a number of the nutrition and health benefits it provides. First of all, unlike most plant-based proteins, it’s a ‘complete protein’ meaning that, like meat, it contains all nine essential amino acids. It is high in protein, high in fibre, low in saturated fat, free from trans-fat and from cholesterol. It is also a great source of micronutrients, including riboflavin, folate, phosphorus, Zinc, Choline and manganese. There is now an evidence base of more than 25 published studies showing that Quorn mycoprotein can help lower cholesterol and build and maintain muscle mass.”
Nutrition remains at the heart of Quorn’s innovation and R&D efforts. “We believe we already offer the most nutritious and environmentally-friendly meat alternative on the planet, but we will never stop looking for ways to make it even better, and we have established a salt reduction group to work towards lowering our salt content further.”
ADM’s French agreed that delivering a balanced nutritional profile is vital to supporting consumers as they seek out dietary diversity. “Consumers today are proactively looking for ways to support their overall well-being, and many are seeking out ingredient diversity and improved nutrition in their products. Blending different plant protein sources can be a way to achieve this goal,” she observed. “Carefully selected plant protein blends not only satisfy nutritional desires, but they can also provide key functionality and appealing sensory experiences, all of which help entice repeat purchases.”
What other F&B categories hit the sustainable nutrition sweet spot?
While the high growth plant-based segment is a headliner for the sustainable nutrition movement, other product categories are also seeing the benefit of increasing consumer tendencies to link environmental and physical health.
Digital B2B marketplace ShelfNow has witnessed a surge in demand for healthy food and drink options, a trend that Co-founder and CEO Philip Linardos believes has aligned with interest in sustainably produced food. This synergistic relationship is underpinned by innovation, he told this publication.
“In recent years we have seen these two separate demands continue to evolve as both health and sustainability become increasingly important considerations for consumers.
“At ShelfNow we have seen a huge 75% increase in orders over the past 12 months for products with specific ‘health’ ingredients such as pea flower and olive oil which indicates how there is now considerable awareness of food and drink products that provide clear health benefits. Healthy food and drink are much more likely to be natural, organic, and made without any artificial additives. We have seen a natural synergy between both trends due to the exciting product innovation that we have witnessed from the brands available on our marketplace.”
ADM’s French agrees that healthy products are frequently associated with sustainable ingredients and sourcing practices, meaning that health-conscious consumers and conscientious consumption ‘tend to go hand-in-hand’. “Consumers are particularly drawn to ingredients they perceive as closer-to-nature, and they want to know where and how these ingredients are sourced. Moreover, locally sourcing ingredients can help meet consumers’ desire for transparency, while also shortening supply chains and reducing transportation emissions,” she observed.
So, what categories and segments have been the biggest winners from this collision of complementary trends?
Linardos revealed: “We have seen strong growth across all of our low-calorie/low-sugar/organic food and drink categories as demand for produce that is both good for our bodies and the planet has surged. In particular, we predict that functional drinks will remain highly popular amongst consumers over the coming months and years as an explosion in innovation from protein drinks to CBD and gut-friendly products continues to unfold. Low and no alcohol is still popular with many of our buyers as an ever-increasing number of people seek out alcohol alternatives with lower ABVs and a reduced number of calories. These individuals are still wanting to enjoy their favourite drinks and the alcohol experience, but they are wanting to do this in a way that favours moderation.”
Linardos expects that demand for products that are healthy and sustainable will continue to grow in tandem as health and sustainability sets the innovation agenda for food and beverage manufacturers.
“Both of these trends will remain at the forefront of F&B product innovation in the years to come. Global concerns around sustainability and nutrition are only continuing to rise and we are seeing this both in terms of government policies such net-zero pledges and individual lifestyle trends such as veganism. As a result, ensuring that NPD is both environmentally friendly and healthy will be a top priority for many brands,” he predicted.
Spotlight on ingredients means brands must be transparent
With more consumers seeking out products that are both healthy and sustainable, ingredient and sourcing stories become central to brand identity. “This is why we have recently introduced blockchain technology throughout our platform to promote sustainability, ethical operations, and transparency for our buyers,” Linardos told us.
ADM’s French also stressed demand for healthy and sustainable food is pushing transparency up the agenda. “Sustainable nutrition impacts nearly every food and beverage category. From the crops we turn to for plant-based alternative applications to the flavours, colours, sweetening solutions, oils and more, sustainability is at the foundation of our products,” the sustainability expert told us.
“What distinguishes one product from another is how its ingredients are produced. For example, a hearty flax or whole grain bread can offer wholesome nutrition through ancient grains and seeds, but how these ingredients are grown is vital to the product’s sustainability story.”
This is becoming more important for global consumers, with Nielsen data suggesting 73% say they feel positive about companies that are transparent about where and how products were made, raised or grown.
For its part, ADM is focused on supporting its farmer-suppliers to adopt regenerative agricultural practices, which include planting cover crops, crop rotations and minimal tillage. “We help farmers and growers implement regenerative agriculture practices by supporting education, cooperation, and cost-sharing mechanisms. Adopting these initiatives helps to reduce the environmental impact, ultimately bringing traceable, more sustainable, nutrition-forward options to consumers,” we were told.
“Transparent sourcing and regenerative agriculture practices are key to brands finding the right balance between consumers’ sustainability demands and wellness goals.”