The challenge of making menus nutritious and sustainable
It can’t be assumed that a healthy diet will have a low environmental impact, or vice versa, so we will need to weigh up the limits of both healthy and sustainable menus.
There’s an argument that food can only be truly sustainable if it nutritionally balanced. The Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines ‘sustainable healthy diets’ as dietary patterns that promote all dimensions of individuals’ health and wellbeing; have low environmental pressure and impact; are accessible, affordable, safe and equitable; and are culturally acceptable.
That’s quite a description, but a shift towards diets and food systems that are both healthy and sustainable is going to be critical on a global level. One-quarter to one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from our food systems, while almost 40% of adults globally are classified as either overweight, obese, or underweight, and more than 200 million children are stunted, underweight, overweight or obese.
Changes in dietary patterns have shown the potential to benefit both human health and the planet. Studies suggest that reducing meat consumption, for example, can significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions while remaining nutritionally adequate. Global adoption of a low-meat diet that meets nutritional recommendations for fruits, vegetables, and caloric requirements is estimated to reduce diet-related greenhouse gases by nearly 50%, and premature mortality by nearly 20%.
Regulation is one approach and has the ability to improve food systems through enhanced standards which can empower consumers to make healthier and sustainable food choices, even if some times unpopular with producers.
While not directly affecting the UK, many international food producers are likely to be impacted by the EU's Farm to Fork Strategy, part of the European Green Deal, which aims to establish fair, healthy, and eco-friendly food systems, reduce the use of pesticides, and cut food waste.
At a global level, 134 countries, including the US, China, the EU and the UK, have signed the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action, requiring countries to include food and agriculture in their next round of emissions reduction plans – Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – that represent their commitment to helping meet the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
This declaration is not legally binding, so the next step will be for each country to turn these high-level plans into workable solutions with the setting of targets and timelines. Time will tell if this also results in regulation, but we can expect awareness of food’s impact on climate change among consumers, employees and investors to steadily increase in the coming years – making it all the more important to get to work on your net zero strategy.
What can operators do?
You’ll already have a handle on the nutritional profile of your menu, but you may or may not understand the environmental impact of the food and drink you sell. Nutritics’ Foodprint programme provides an automated solution to help – so you can establish benchmarks and understand where and how improvements can be made.
The Plant Forward culinary approach is a food philosophy gaining traction amongst environmentally-conscious consumers, which centres around increasing the ratio of vegetables, pulses, and grains in our food. It still allows for meat, fish and dairy, but recommends the use of higher-quality and sustainably sourced ingredients. Exploring this culinary route in 2024 is a good way for operators to minimise their environmental impact and reduce costs, while still catering for those looking for meat, dairy and fish.
What we learned at COP28
Last year, Nutritics played a key role in helping the organisers of COP28 deliver climate-friendly and nutritionally-balanced menus at the sustainability summit, to showcase the impact of climate conscious catering with a focus on the provision of 1.5C aligned menus that are climate friendly, tasty and nutritious. With insights powered by Nutritics, 50% of the food served by caterers at COP28 met sustainable carbon, water intensity and UAE macronutrient guidelines, with two-thirds of all food options being vegetarian or vegan.
Research and innovation are key drivers in accelerating the transition to sustainable, healthy and inclusive food systems from primary production to consumption - and technology and advances in software can help translate science into practical applications.
The interconnectedness between nutritionally balanced and sustainable diets will be pivotal for addressing global food challenges - from malnutrition to the degradation of environmental and natural resources.
On a more day-to-day level, changes that hospitality operators make, alongside regulatory interventions, informed consumer choices, and technological advancements, as championed by Nutritics, will be essential in steering our food systems towards a healthier and more sustainable future.