How to make the shift to a more sustainable and healthy food system?

Sustainable diets & Sustainable Development Goals


The food system, from production to consumption and waste treatment, makes a big contribution (20–30%) to global greenhouse gas emissions and a big claim on scarce natural resources. By 2050 we will have to provide 9 to 10 billion people with healthy and sustainably produced food. At the same time this is one of the biggest global challenges today: How to make food production and consumption both healthier and more sustainable? The associated issues are diverse and concern growing world population, malnutrition, climate change and a claim on natural resources. We see that companies, governments and civil society organisations are looking for ways to define the contours of a healthy and sustainable society. The research area of sustainable diets attempts to provide answers on how to meet these challenges. However, this is rather complex. In this article we’d like to take a moment to give you more insights in how to find sound solutions to make the shift to a more sustainable and healthy food system.

Sustainable diets & Sustainable Development Goals

The topic of sustainable and healthy food patterns is on the agenda worldwide. The term ‘Sustainable diet’ encompasses health and environmental aspects of food patterns. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) gives the following definition: 'Those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources'.

This connects to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), defined by the United Nations in 2015, which is a set of 17 goals to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. The second goal within the SDGs is related to the topic of sustainable diets. It is focused on ‘Zero hunger’ and includes ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’. A closer look at the SDGs tells us that nutrition is actually a vital precondition to achieve 8 out of the 17 goals. 

How to grasp the full picture of healthy & sustainable nutrition?

In order to reach the goals and to make the shift to this sustainable and healthy food system, everyone needs to participate. This means governments, private sector, civil society organizations and consumers need to be involved. We see that companies, governments and civil society organizations are looking for ways to tackle the challenge and aim to define the contours of a healthy and sustainable society. However, defining healthy and sustainable food patterns is complex. To help organizations to come up with sound solutions, we have built a tool, Optimeal, which enables to grasp the full picture of healthy and sustainable nutrition. Optimeal makes it possible to find solutions that are evidence-based, realistic and have the ability to achieve a global impact. This tool defines healthy and sustainable food patterns based on a systematic investigation and sound environmental and nutritional data. The Optimeal engine uses either linear programming (LP) or quadratic programming (QP) to find the optimal solution. 

AN example

Menu for Tomorrow

The Menu for Tomorrow is an investigation of what a healthy and sustainable diet would be for the Netherlands. Optimeal® was used to compile a diet that meets all nutritional requirements and remains within the user space environmental limits, while staying as close as possible to the current diet. The menu provides a considerable reduction of greenhouse gases emissions and a smaller claim on scarce natural resources. With the Menu for Tomorrow in 2030 it will still be possible to enjoy a varied diet. Furthermore, it is better for animal welfare and keeps the Dutch within their share of global carrying capacity based on the user space (Fair Share). Within the Menu for Tomorrow certain products will increase (vegetables, pulses, nuts & seeds, fish, and soy products & vegetarian products) or reduce (meat, cheese, drinks, and milk & milk products). At the same time, several product groups will stay equal (for instance eggs).

Meaningful business: Strategic position of products

Facing global sustainability issues and public pressure, it is imperative that companies develop a clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of products with respect to environmental impacts and nutrient intake and have identified the weaknesses that contribute most (hotspots). The strategic position of products in sustainable and healthy diets depends on the balance between nutritive value and environmental impact. If this is favorable, an increase in the amount of product decreases the overall impact of the diet. Optimeal can also give an indication of how difficult it is to replace a product. Based on this analysis, products and product groups can be placed into four quadrants. A product that is hard to replace and with a positive contribution to the environmental impact of the diet has a strong position, while a product that is easy to eliminate and an increase would imply a worse environmental impact profile has a weak strategic position. Food companies can decide to decrease the impact per unit of product or make foods more nutritious per unit. Decreasing the environmental impact per unit of food product and making foods more nutritious are of clear interest to food and beverage companies. However, methods are required to assess the sustainability performance of foods in a healthy diet. Priorities depend on the context, as dietary needs, dietary habits and the level of development vary between markets. 

Right balance between impact and nutrition

The first step in making the food system more sustainable and healthy is a clear and comprehensive assessment. Accurate and clear information and data provide the essential basis for this. By looking into the environmental impact as well as the nutritional value of food products sustainable diets can be defined. Herewith, optimization tools can support in solving the nutritional and environmental balancing act on a rational basis with local constraints. It can help governments and civil society organizations to define the contours of sustainable diets, which help to formulate policies and foster action in society. Furthermore, it can help companies to determine the position of certain products in a sustainable and healthy diet and define a clear strategy, for instance to decrease the environmental impact of make certain products more nutritious. This means it is possible for all those different stakeholders to come up with evidence-based and realistic solutions to tackle one of the biggest global challenges of today and head for a sustainable, healthy and prosperous future.  

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Get in touch

Marcelo Tyszler
Head of Data Science and Data Innovation

Do you have questions on how you can define sustainable diets? Get in touch with Marcelo.