The Uncertain Road Toward Healthy Sustainable Diets

Road near EstaqueMore sustainable and healthy diets are a global goal of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The FAO says the need for this focus is increasingly evident, but certainly not simple to achieve. Nutrition recommendations around the world are beginning to incorporate these considerations, they say.

“Such recommendations include for example: having a mostly plant-based diet, focus on seasonal and local foods, reduction of food waste, consumption of fish from sustainable stocks only and reduction of red and processed meat, highly-processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.”

There’s a bit of a challenge, though, when we try to weave sustainability goals into nutritional guidance for human health. New research suggests that people might not yet be ready to merge these two considerations.

Labeling Food as “Healthy”

Emily Belarmino and colleagues undertook a content analysis of the public comments FDA received on criteria for labeling a food as “healthy.” The agency has been working on this for eight years now. It’s a tough slog, but FDA is sticking with it.

Belarmino et al wanted to know how the commenting public defines healthy foods and whether sustainability fits in this context. So they examined 1,125 comments from individuals and organizations in 2016 and 2017. A three member team coded the comments according to their content relating to nutrition, processing, and sustainability.

Broadly, what they found was that the commenters were very much aligned with recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to promote healthy eating patterns. But “sustainable” doesn’t seem to have much of a role in the public’s thinking about healthy diets.

About a third of commenters mentioned some dimension of sustainability – mainly concerns about synthetic chemicals and genetic modification. Less than three percent actually used any form of the word “sustainability.”

Adding Complexity

One thing is clear enough. If you want to paralyze human decision-making, loading people up with too much information is a good way to do it.

It has not been easy for FDA to come up with criteria for “healthy” food. Sustainability adds another dimension for thinking about what’s healthy in a global sense. But we note that sustainability did not make it into either the 2015 or the 2020 edition of these guidelines.

Maybe the public or policymakers were not ready for this. Or maybe layering sustainability questions into the complexity of nutrition is just too much. Though talk about incorporating sustainability into dietary guidelines continues, it seems unlikely this will happen in the 2025 edition.

Click here for the study by Belarmino et al, here and here for further perspective.

Road near Estaque, painting by Georges Braque / WikiArt

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April 10, 2024