JOURNAL ARTICLE

Which functional unit to identify sustainable foods?

Gabriel Masset, Florent Vieux, Nicole Darmon
Public Health Nutrition 2015, 18 (13): 2488-97
25805001

OBJECTIVE: In life-cycle assessment, the functional unit defines the unit for calculation of environmental indicators. The objective of the present study was to assess the influence of two functional units, 100 g and 100 kcal (420 kJ), on the associations between three dimensions for identifying sustainable foods, namely environmental impact (via greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE)), nutritional quality (using two distinct nutrient profiling systems) and price.

DESIGN: GHGE and price data were collected for individual foods, and were each expressed per 100 g and per 100 kcal. Two nutrient profiling models, SAIN,LIM and UK Ofcom, were used to assess foods' nutritional quality. Spearman correlations were used to assess associations between variables. Sustainable foods were identified as those having more favourable values for all three dimensions.

SETTING: The French Individual and National Dietary Survey (INCA2), 2006-2007.

SUBJECTS: Three hundred and seventy-three foods highly consumed in INCA2, covering 65 % of total energy intake of adult participants.

RESULTS: When GHGE and price were expressed per 100 g, low-GHGE foods had a lower price and higher SAIN,LIM and Ofcom scores (r=0·59, -0·34 and -0·43, respectively), suggesting a compatibility between the three dimensions; 101 and 100 sustainable foods were identified with SAIN,LIM and Ofcom, respectively. When GHGE and price were expressed per 100 kcal, low-GHGE foods had a lower price but also lower SAIN,LIM and Ofcom scores (r=0·67, 0·51 and 0·47, respectively), suggesting that more environment-friendly foods were less expensive but also less healthy; thirty-four sustainable foods were identified with both SAIN,LIM and Ofcom.

CONCLUSIONS: The choice of functional unit strongly influenced the compatibility between the sustainability dimensions and the identification of sustainable foods.

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