Diet swaps can reduce carbon emissions and improve health, a recent study finds, providing sustainable and nutritional insights and spurring action in the food industry.
Consumers’ dietary habits shape the climate and health landscape, results from a recent study confirm. If all US consumers who ate high-carbon foods replaced these with a lower-carbon substitute, the country’s total dietary carbon footprint would be reduced by more than 35%, researchers have found. By adopting food substitutions like these consumers would improve overall dietary quality by 4–10%, the scientists discovered.
Rather than a one-solution-for-all-approach in terms of climate objectives or individual health aims, the study indicates how minimal modifications can have a significant global effect. Following their findings, the researchers suggest that making a ‘small change’ approach may be a valuable first step to tackling the impact of consumers’ diets on the climate and health.
How diets impact climate and health landscape
Today, global food production accounts for a third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, indicating a direct connection between diets, climate and health issues. The United Nations’ Paris Agreement highlights the importance of achieving sustainable and healthy dietary patterns addressing climate mitigation while promoting health.
“Global demand for meat is forecast to almost double by 2050 – so we urgently need to find a more sustainable method of feeding the planet’s growing population,” Helen Breewood, research and resource manager at the Good Food Institute Europe (GFI), told IFIS Publishing.
With a significant contribution to the globe’s climate impact, consumers and the wider sector are turning to scientific literature for nutritional and health guidance and calling on manufacturers to respond with conscious products.
Studying the potential role dietary changes can have on the environment, the study’s researchers found that changing food consumption habits may lower environmental harm and improve human health. However, achieving widespread dietary change presents challenges.
In the study, researchers sought to identify high-carbon-impact foods and suggest viable lower-carbon alternatives. Four major food groups—mixed dishes, proteins, dairy, and non-alcoholic beverages—were responsible for approximately 85% of US dietary carbon emissions, the scientists found.
The research study published in the Nature Food Journal used dietary intake data from a sample of 7,753 US children and adults from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2015–2016 cycle who had provided a valid 24-hour dietary recall.
During the study, researchers simulated the potential effects of these substitutions on dietary emissions to lessen their impact on the environment and dietary quality to provide nutritional qualities. Researchers identified popular foods with the highest climate impact and simulated replacing them with lower-emission options that mimicked the nutritional profile of the traditional ones.
They found that dietary changes can provide advantages to the wider globe by cutting carbon emissions and improving the nutritional content of consumers’ diets. Examples of swaps that can support the environment and health, include substituting beef or pork with poultry, mixed dishes replaced with poultry or vegetarian dishes, or opting for plant-based milk instead of animal milk. Mixed dishes such as burritos, pasta, and those where it is easier to substitute a lower-impact protein than beef indicated the biggest projected drop in emissions.
Reducing climate footprint and negative health impact
Making dietary changes could considerably reduce the carbon footprint from food consumption. Protein swaps could result in a 50.2% drop in the dietary carbon footprint, while mixed-dish substitutions may lead to a drop of 52.6%.
Positive health outcomes are likely too. The simulated protein substitution could improve the average Healthy Eating Index (HEI) HEI score by 4.3%, while mixed-dish changes could increase the swaps by 10.3%, drawing on beneficial nutrients such as seafood, plant proteins and fatty acids.
Research from the EAT-Lancet Commission explored healthy diets from sustainable food systems, detailed that unhealthy diets pose a greater threat to morbidity and mortality than unsafe sex, and alcohol, drug and tobacco use, combined.
Substantial dietary shifts are required to transform the global eating habits and transition to healthy diets by 2050, the EAT Lancet Recommendations reported. Worldwide consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double while red meat and sugar will need to lower by more than 50%. Promoting the climate and health benefits of a diet rich in plant-based foods is also crucial, it stated.
In line with the EAT Lancet Recommendations, The European Alliance for Plant-based Foods (EAPF) sets out its vision and recommendations for planting the future of sustainable food systems in Europe, detailing the organisation’s view that the transition towards a plant-rich sustainable food system is a necessary one.
In the report, the EAPF also details what is required at the European Union (EU) level to achieve this. In June 2023, the organisation detailed its calls to the EU to propose to move 40% of current levels of animal-based product consumption to plant-based foods by 2030.
Moving to plant-based consumption
“The main food groups to reduce are animal products,” Siska Pottie, Secretary General of the Plant-based Food Alliance told IFIS Publishing. Meat, fish, dairy and eggs are the commonplace items consumers are recommended to lower their intake of. “These should be replaced with plant-based foods and plant-based alternatives to have a positive impact on the environment,” Pottie added.
Understanding conversion challenges is crucial. “It is very inefficient to feed plant-based proteins to animals to produce animal-based proteins as the conversion is very inefficient and comes with huge land and water use,” Pottie says.
Another detrimental factor is that cattle production results in high methane production, a potent GHG. On average, the current ratio of protein intake is 60% animal protein versus 40% plant-based protein. “This ratio should be inversed and become 60% plant-based protein intake versus 40% animal protein intake,” Pottie shared.
Making the transition possible
“However, these products won’t be able to realise their true potential until they can compete with conventional meat and dairy on crucial metrics such as taste and price,” said Astley.
“While a huge amount of innovation is already taking place, governments and the food industry need to invest in the research and infrastructure needed to ensure these foods taste as good, and are as affordable, as the meat and dairy people love,” Astley added.
Siska Pottie, Secretary General of the Plant-based Food Alliance https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-023-00864-0 - European Alliance for Plant-based Foods (EAPF) Vision: Planting the future of sustainable food systems in Europe report.
Conrad Astley, Senior Communications Officer, The Good Food Institute Europe