Cultivating Diets That Are Both Healthy and Environmentally Sustainable
As found in IFIC’s 2019 Food and Health Survey, environmental sustainability has become increasingly associated with the foods that we eat as well as our food purchases. Yet sustainability can mean different things to different people. According to the Journal of Environmental Sustainability, environmental sustainability is the “condition of balance, resilience and interconnectedness that allows human society to satisfy its needs while neither exceeding the capacity of its supporting ecosystems to continue to regenerate the services necessary to meet those needs nor by our actions diminishing biological diversity.” Basically, this definition refers to the condition of reducing damage to our environment (through the renewable depletion of resources) so that future generations can also meet their own needs.
A healthy and complete diet involves eating essential nutrients needed for physiological functions, which includes dietary proteins. Proteins can be consumed in various ways and are essential in our diets for maintaining muscle strength, bone health, and blood sugar control in addition to supporting the body’s immune defenses and promoting quicker healing. However, in the pursuit of both a healthful and environmentally sustainable diet, how to best access these essential proteins has come under question. Where are our purchasing decisions headed as we look to fulfill a complete, healthful, and sustainable diet? What does this mean for our plant-based and animal-based protein intake?
Let’s further explore findings from the Survey of Consumers’ Attitudes and Perceptions of Environmentally Sustainable and Healthy Diets to shed some light on where protein choices may be headed and what consumers perceive as constituting a well-rounded and environmentally sustainable diet.
Trouble defining “environmentally sustainable”
The Survey of Consumers’ Attitudes and Perceptions of Environmentally Sustainable and Healthy Diets found that 40 percent of consumers were unsure if an “environmentally sustainable diet” was the same as a “sustainable diet,” while 34 percent acknowledged that they were not the same.
When asked to rank the specific aspects that were important to them when considering an environmentally sustainable diet, consumers’ top choices included, “What I eat is healthy for the planet,” “What I eat is nutritious,” and “What I eat is both healthy for me and for the planet.” Minimal and sustainable packaging were still considered important; however, environmental health and personal health still ranked as more important precursors to defining an environmentally sustainable diet.
Protein preparation in our diets
Most (92 percent) respondents reported consuming animal-based protein products (e.g. poultry, pork, beef, cow’s milk, eggs, and seafood), while 72 percent of consumers reported eating plant-based protein sources (e.g. tofu, soy milk, beans, tempeh, nuts, seeds, and legumes). When asked further why they consumed such products, both animal- and plant-based protein consumers readily choose “I like the taste” and “An easy way to get protein in my diet” as the primary reasons for consuming such protein products. Notably, 45 percent of animal-based protein consumers cited being familiar with how to prepare animal-based protein products; while many (33 percent) plant-based protein consumers felt that plant-based proteins were a healthier option.
The majority (66 percent) of consumers believed that protein from both animal-based and plant-based sources is environmentally sustainable. In fact, over 60 percent of consumers felt they should consume more or the same amount of protein from plant-based sources. Likewise, over 50 percent of consumers felt that in order to eat both an environmentally sustainable and a healthy diet, they should eat either the same amount or more protein from animal-based sources.
Terminologies for sustainability can be confusing
When asked about the environmental sustainability of animal-based proteins, consumers linked health and safety concerns together. Half of respondents indicated that environmental sustainability was tied directly with “no added hormones.” It is important to keep in mind, though, that in the United States, hormones are not allowed to be used in poultry and pork; thus, if you see a “no hormones used” label on poultry or pork products, be cognizant that this language can be somewhat misleading. Additionally, animal-based proteins sourced from “grass-fed animals” and those labeled “locally raised” were noted as also important when considering animal-based protein environmental sustainability. However, the environmental sustainability of grass-fed animal products is debatable, as studies have shown such products may be sustainable for some countries but not so much for others. When considering sustainability, one should also consider the environmental impacts of transporting products—which itself can contribute to environmental stress (due to gas usage) and economic loss (due to product deterioration).
What should we do?
While environmental sustainability is an important factor in purchasing and eating practices, it is important to acknowledge the potential confusion surrounding the term “environmentally sustainable.” We look forward to seeing more food producers communicate about their efforts in working to conserve natural resources and produce food in a sustainable way. Still, as we seek out “sustainability cues” we should stay mindful that protein-infused diets—when consumed properly—are important, regardless of the source.
“A Survey of Consumers’ Attitudes and Perceptions of Environmentally Sustainable and Healthy Diets” interviewed 1,000 adults 18 years and older from June 11 and 12, 2019, and was weighted to ensure proportional results. It had a margin of error of 3.1% at a 95% confidence level.