As climate change accelerates, the global population increases and poverty and food insecurity persist, global food systems face the increasingly urgent challenge of feeding the planet nutritious, affordable and culturally acceptable foods while reducing environmental impacts. A truly sustainable diet must provide not just essential nutrients, but also support personal and environmental well-being.  

Global food systems are facing challenges, yet at the same time, provide tremendous opportunity to help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. SDGs are a universal call to action to achieve a more sustainable future by addressing a broad range of interconnected challenges by 2030. Climate change, poverty, inequality and the need to feed a growing global population are accelerating the convergence of nutrition and sustainability through efforts to produce nutrient-rich, safe, affordable and culturally acceptable foods while reducing environmental impacts. While the SDGs are guiding global sustainable food and agricultural commitments by commodities, food companies and retailers, much debate remains regarding how to define and achieve healthy, sustainable diets.

Growing sense of urgency is fueling efforts to define and achieve sustainable diets

Global conversation on the topic is quickly amplifying. In 2019 alone, more than 20 global reports and initiatives focused on defining and/or setting targets for global sustainable diets. As a few examples, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization released their Sustainable Healthy Diets Guiding Principles; the World Resources Institute included a shift to “healthier and more sustainable diets” as a key priority in its Creating a Sustainable Food Future report; and the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health recommended its Planetary Health Diet, which attempted to set global targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production for the first time.

Still, research on sustainable diets is in its relative infancy and, not surprisingly, fueling a lot of friction in the resulting dialogue. There’s a strong need to consider tradeoffs across multiple dimensions of sustainable food systems to operationalize these recommendations, including consideration of affordability, accessibility and cultural differences. All dimensions of sustainability—including environmental, health and socioeconomic factors—must be considered to develop effective sustainable dietary guidance. Conflicting views on these complex issues among stakeholders are adding to confusion on how to define and achieve sustainable diets.

Consumers are interested in sustainable foods but are uncertain how to identify them

Conversations about the impacts of diets on the environment have moved into the mainstream, and recent surveys affirm there’s both strong consumer interest and confusion on the topic of sustainable foods. For example, the 2019 International Food Information Council Food and Health Survey found that six in 10 U.S. consumers find it hard to know whether their food choices are environmentally sustainable, and 63 percent of these consumers say this information would have a greater influence on their food choices if it were easier to determine. A nationally representative survey conducted by Padilla|FoodMinds found that 66 percent of U.S. consumers want to learn more about sustainable foods but only one in five turn to food and beverage companies for sustainability information. They’re primarily looking toward authoritative bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (43 percent) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (39 percent) to learn more but find the available information confusing and challenging to navigate.

These results are echoed globally. The 2019 Globescan Healthy and Sustainable Living Report, conducted with consumers across 25 countries, found that consumers are keenly interested in leading more healthy and sustainable lives, but there’s a significant gap between intent and action, and they’re unsure how to achieve them.

We know that consumers seek credible sources of information about the sustainability of their food choices yet don’t know where to turn. The resulting lack of clarity drives consumer skepticism and limits the ability of sustainability considerations to impact purchase decisions today. This creates an opportunity for stakeholders throughout food supply chains, including commodities, companies, retailers and restaurants to enhance how they communicate about their products’ roles in sustainable food systems. Given the high propensity for confusion, messages should be clear and credible to effectively communicate how products are delivering benefits across all dimensions of sustainability, including environmental, health, sociocultural and economic elements.

Protein foods in the spotlight, adding to consumer confusion

One particular source of confusion are protein foods, especially with the explosion of meat alternatives and plant protein options available in the market. Consumers are increasingly looking for more choices in protein food, and the proliferation of protein products makes it essential for the food industry to clearly articulate and substantiate the sustainability benefits of their products, so consumers can make informed choices.

Interestingly, research suggests that consumers are expanding their protein choices for a variety of reasons beyond health and environmental considerations— they’re also driven by curiosity, novelty and convenience. Their food choices may be further complicated by potentially competing priorities like clean labels, price and taste. Clear labeling and marketing is critical to help consumers choose sustainable food products aligned with their values, motivations and nutrition needs. In the ongoing conversation on sustainable diets and on plant and animal protein foods specifically, transparency is more important than ever.

Clear, credible sustainability communications are key

Today’s consumers want and demand transparency regarding the sustainability of their food and the food system. Escalating pressures on the world’s food systems aren’t going away, and stakeholders across the food industry share responsibility for helping consumers eat more sustainably. As consumers continue to strive for personal and environmental wellbeing, companies should focus on continuous improvement efforts and provide transparent, credible information about the sustainability of their products to help achieve healthy, sustainable diets.

This article was co-authored by Katie Padilla and originally featured in O’Dwyer’s March 2020 Food Issue.

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