We recently held the 4th Annual Institute for Food Nutrition and Health (IFNH) on the theme of ‘Sustainable and Nutritious Food – are these values irreconcilable?’. To replicate the success of our last Forum, we ran the event online again which broadened our audience and enabled speakers with a breadth and wealth of experience from both the University and other institutions to contribute to the debate.

The consequences of food choice are complex – for diet, health and malnutrition, for the climate and environment, and for lifestyles and desires. Professor Carol Wagstaff, Research Dean – Agriculture, Food and Health, opened the Forum by highlighting the tension between sustainability and nutrition in our food system. The message is clear about the need to eat well so we all get a broad range of nutrients: we all know we should be eating five a day, but not many of us do. But even the most virtuous amongst us would struggle at this time of year to eat their 5-a-day based on UK grown crops alone. As a result, we now have a huge availability of produce from around the world, at all times of the year. Some may question the ability to buy a pineapple year-round and forego this as an ’unsustainable’ choice in the depths of winter, unaware that the UK apples they choose instead will have been stored in environments with high CO2 from the point of harvest, which calls into question their sustainability.

Climate change dominates public discourse but food production plays a large part in human activity that effects the environment. Research has showed that a move to national recommendations on dietary intake would result in a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the whole food sector. Dr Adrian Williams of the Centre for Environmental and Agricultural Informatics at Cranfield University outlined how life cycle assessment (LCA), which provides a ‘cradle to grave’ approach to assessing environmental impact, shows that the concepts of food miles and carbon footprints are too simplistic. For example, Spanish tomatoes can have a lower impact when they arrive in the UK than the tomatoes grown here. Similarly the cheapest tomatoes often have the lowest impact because growing on the vine produces half the yield.

Professor Christopher Reynolds, Professor of Animal and Dairy Science outlined the livestock industry has been focused for many years on finding management strategies to reduce environmental impacts and achieve net zero: improvements in genetics, nutrition, technology; adoption of feeding and management best practice; efficient use of available resources. But whole system and LCA approaches are needed here too: the trend for reduced red meat consumption has by and large been replaced by white meat consumption, which also has an environmental impact. Although poultry production doesn’t produce methane like ruminants, the feed they need has high environmental impact.

However, we can’t make the assumption that all plant-based diets are the solution. The move to a modern vegetarian or vegan diet isn’t without environmental impact. Although these foods don’t produce emissions such as methane like animal products, some aren’t necessarily environmentally sustainable, contributing impact via packaging and processing. There has been a huge explosion in the market of plant-based alternative foods, many of which are highly processed and include increased sugar and fat – and are not as healthy as consumers might think. For example, there has been a significant rise in the use of plant-based dairy alternatives. However milk is nutrient-dense, and as Dr Sokratis Stergiadis, Associate Professor, Animal Sciences, highlighted, replacing cows’ products with plant-based alternatives has significant implication for nutrient intakes, including iodine. It also has implications for household expenditure with the research indicating that an average family of four with two young children replacing milk with plant-based alternatives could see their expenditure increase by £30 per month.

Consumer food choice can have a massive impact on environmental impact and consumers need to be supported to change their behaviour. Dr Amelia Hollywood, Lecturer in Health Services Research, discussed how nutrition is a key part of healthcare however nutrition training is lacking for healthcare professionals, who play a key role in health promotion. Studies have found that if we want dietary change to be effective and long term then the new practices should not differ too much from the original behaviour. Dr Rachel Smith, Postdoctoral Research Assistant, presented research that showed hybrid meat products (where a percentage of meat is replaced with a plant-based alternative) could represent an effective way for consumers to lower meat consumption by addressing consumer concerns about sensory quality when transitioning to non-meat products.

Dr Julia Vogt, Associate Professor of Psychology, outlined the importance of understanding the role of motivational and emotional factors in consumers attitudes. Stress, and the desire to relieve stress can lead to irrational, and prevent healthy and sustainable, food choices. So sustainable and nutritious food has to be enjoyable to ensure consumers want to consume it.

Professor Jennie Macdiarmid, Interim Director of Health, Nutrition and Wellbeing Challenges, University of Aberdeen, raised the critical issue of language around sustainable and nutritious diets and the confusion that thrives: for example, 41% of people think a plant-based diet is vegan and 20% think it is vegetarian (BNF 2021 Feher). There is a real need to change the messaging around ‘protein replacements’ which is fuelling concerns about sustainable diets; we need food alternatives, not protein replacements, as reducing meat consumption will not result in protein deficiency for most people. Changing terminology from plant-based to plant-rich might help avoid confusion and eliminate potential barriers. A good example of this is that men have been shown to be more willing to reduce meat consumption if they are referred to as ‘part-time carnivores’.

The general consensus from this year’s Forum was that sustainable and nutritious diets are not irreconcilable but there are many barriers to switching diets: taste, convenience, nutrient deficiency risks, social and financial constraints. There is a great deal of research going on, but the focus has been on environmental and health impacts and if we want people to change, these need to come together with a full understanding of consumer motivations and behaviour, to ensure consumers are provided with information, education and nutritious and sustainable food that they actually want.

Professor Ian Givens is Director of the Institute for Food Nutrition and Health and Professor of Food Chain Nutrition.