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FAQ on Making Healthy and Sustainable Food Choices

In this article, you will find an answer to frequently asked questions related to the role of the consumer in making safe, healthy and sustainable food choices.
Image with FAQ to represent Frequently Asked Questions
© QUB

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The most recent market studies indicate that consumers wants to be more aware of where their food comes from and what it may contain. This also includes choosing products that are perceived as more natural, minimally processed, contain well-known ingredients and products that offer health benefits. Of course, global food scandals have also eroded consumer trust. This trend for cleaner labels and less ingredients is also linked to the need for more transparency in the whole food supply chain, which comes hand in hand with digitalization. In other words, we are not only more mindful, but we are also becoming more connected. The connectivity also creates many trends and personal opinions on what is good and bad for you and your health, which are not always based on data. Consumers have also become used to safe food and robust food supply over the last thirty years, and it will therefore be hard to compromise on. Similarly, they still demand products tasting similar to the original products.

2. What is the EAT-lancet report?

In 2019, a commission of world leading scientists, drew on the best available nutritional and environmental evidence to construct and publish a universal reference diet that could feed a growing population of 10 billion people by 2050 within planetary boundaries that does not jeopardize the environment for future generations. The EAT-lancet report sets out what it calls a healthy and sustainable diet, the Planetary Healthy Diet.

3. What is the Planetary Health Diet?

The Planetary Health Diet is the ‘new’ reference healthy diet that is a largely plant based diet, consisting largely of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, and includes a low or moderate amount of seafood and poultry; and little to no red meat. This means a significant shift from an animal-based diet to plant and alternative proteins, which has to be linked to a more sustainable food production that will regulate the State of the Earth.

4. What is life cycle assessments?

To evaluate the environmental effects associated with a product or an industrial activity, we need to consider all inputs and outputs, from the initial gathering of the raw material to the point at which all residuals are returned to Earth, using a common methodology. This methodology needs to be agreed upon, standardized and validated, so that the data can be compared. This is called a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

5. What is involved in a Life Cycle Assessment?

The code of practice for LCA is currently a general methodology, which includes four steps: (1) Scoping; (2) Collecting data on all direct and indirect material and energy inputs and waste emissions; (3) Assessing the impact; and (4) Generating an improvement assessment. Recently, the international organization for standardization (ISO) has developed international standards for LCAs. This underlines the extreme importance of this new discipline to create baselines and to measure how our diets impact the environment.

6. How can consumer’s help reduce the amount of food wasted?

Food waste is one of the major issues in the discussions about food supply chain sustainability as it contributes significantly to the environmental impact of the food industry. Aschemann-Witzel et al. (2015) explored the causes and potential for action of consumer-related food waste. The study concluded three major targets for tackling food waste: (1) Date labelling: A misunderstanding of ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates can lead to premature product disposal by consumers. (2) Expectations and perceptions: Edible food products with visual or other imperfections might be rejected by consumers looking for the best price-quality relation. (3) Consumer household management skills.

7. What are responsible food choices?

From the consumer point of view, it might seem to be responsible to choose safe and healthy food products, with prices that are in a reasonable relation to the income of the household. However, in our industrialized and globalized world, there lies more behind the word ‘responsibility’. For example, food production has an immense impact on our environment due to, for example, energy and water use; stockbreeding animals can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions; and the cultivation of plant foods can burden the soil and often requires the use of fertilizers and pesticides. It was recently shown that a drastic reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions could already be achieved with a simple change in everyone’s eating habits. The suggested diet would not only be more sustainable for the planet, but also healthier for the people. It consists of: 50 % fruits and vegetables; Approx. 20 % whole grains; Only 10 % dairy products and animal-sourced protein; 10-15 % protein-rich plant foods such as beans, lentils, peas and other legumes. The rest are added plant oils and starch-rich foods such as potatoes. A reduced production of meat due to changes in consumer behaviour would reduce the need for corn and soy as feedstuff, decrease the water use, and lower the emission of CO2 and methane.

8. What are the barriers to responsible food choices?

In a recent study, by Gifford & Chen (2017) potential psychological barriers to more sustainable food choices were classified into four major factors. (1) The denial of the existence of the human-made climate change or the lack of belief that individuals can contribute to its deceleration. People who dismiss the problem in the first place are less likely to adapt a more sustainable consumption behaviour. (2) Consumers that may actually be willing to change their behaviour might adopt environmental actions in a rather symbolical or inconsequential way, so that the impact is limited. (3) Behavioural changes can contradict with financial, time and other investments that would have to be made. (4) Interpersonal influences such as the rejection of environmentally responsible behaviours in a persons’ social environment that may prevent such endeavours.

9. What role does education play?

Consumers can say that we care about what we eat, and how the food is produced, and we are increasingly making choices for more sustainable products, which have less impact on environment and society. But we still are not as informed as we should be, and knowledge, and therefore consumers’ communication and education is an important task to improve food systems sustainability.

10. What are alternative proteins?

Alternative proteins are proteins from sources other than meat, dairy, eggs and fish. Currently, the main resource for alternative proteins are plants such as legumes (e.g., soy, pea, beans), cereals and pseudo-cereals (e.g., wheat, buckwheat, rice). However, further protein sources are being explored in science and industry, especially single-celled organisms (e.g., fungi, algae), insects and in vitro meat (i.e., muscle cells that are cultivated in a bioreactor). The environmental impact of alternative protein sources is much lower compared to that of animal-based protein, making them favourable for the production of food of the future, which will be challenged by the climate change and an increasing world population.
© QUB
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Introduction to Food Science

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