Identifying sustainable foods: the relationship between environmental impact, nutritional quality, and prices of foods representative of the French diet

Gabriel Masset, Louis-Georges Soler, Florent Vieux, Nicole Darmon
Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2014, 114 (6): 862-9

BACKGROUND: Sustainable diets, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization, need to combine environment, nutrition, and affordability dimensions. However, it is unknown whether these dimensions are compatible, and no guidance is available in the official recommendations.

OBJECTIVE: To identify foods with compatible sustainability dimensions.

METHODS: For 363 of the most commonly consumed foods in the Second French Individual and National Study on Food Consumption, environmental impact indicators (ie, greenhouse gas [GHG] emissions, acidification, and eutrophication), and prices were collected. The nutritional quality of the foods was assessed by calculating the score for the nutritional adequacy of individual foods (SAIN) to score for disqualifying nutrients (LIM) ratio. A sustainability score based on the median GHG emissions, price, and SAIN:LIM was calculated for each food; the foods with the best values for all three variables received the highest score.

RESULTS: The environmental indicators were strongly and positively correlated. Meat, fish, and eggs and dairy products had the strongest influence on the environment; starchy foods, legumes, and fruits and vegetables had the least influence. GHG emissions were inversely correlated with SAIN:LIM (r=-0.37) and positively correlated with price per kilogram (r=0.59); the correlation with price per kilocalorie was null. This showed that foods with a heavy environmental impact tend to have lower nutritional quality and a higher price per kilogram but not a lower price per kilocalorie. Using price per kilogram, 94 foods had a maximum sustainability score, including most plant-based foods and excluding all foods with animal ingredients except milk, yogurt, and soups. Using price per kilocalorie restricted the list to 42 foods, including 52% of all starchy foods and legumes but only 11% of fruits and vegetables (mainly 100% fruit juices).

CONCLUSIONS: Overall, the sustainability dimensions seemed to be compatible when considering price per kilogram of food. However, this conclusion is too simplistic when considering price per kilocalorie, which highlights the need to integrate the data at the diet level.

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