Sustainable food choices on the plate

Sustainable food choices on the plate

Besides the health impacts targeting individual consumers, food should be considered in the broader context of the environment and sustainable development. The nutrition recommendations aim for a health-promoting diet, which is also as sustainable as possible in terms of the environment and allows healthy food choices for the coming generations as well.

Changes in the Finnish diet in line with the recommendations would reduce the environmental load associated with food. To be sustainable food needs to be safe and healthy, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Food consumption influences both human health and production trends. Choices relating to food production impact on various aspects of the environment: climate change, eutrophication, use of water and biodiversity.

Food should be produced and processed in a way that natural resources are utilised as sustainably and efficiently as possible. The production of meat, milk and eggs, for example, always requires plant production for animal feed. This is why the nutrient use efficiency per unit of energy and protein in foodstuffs of animal origin is always weaker than in plant production. Food loss, i.e. edible food ending up as waste, should be avoided. Food loss weakens the profitability and resource efficiency of the food system, increases the price of food, burdens the environment, and is socially unsustainable. 

Some general examples of food choices that are beneficial for sustainability:

  • A higher proportion of vegetables, root plants, potatoes, berries and fruit as well as cereal products in the diet reduces the load on the climate and eutrophication. In particular, we should favour domestic plants of the crop season, i.e. local and seasonal food.
  • Use whole grain products. The greenhouse gas emissions of all cereal species except for rice are low.
  • Domestic leguminous plants such as peas and beans are a more sustainable choice than soybeans. Leguminous plants are capable of utilising nitrogen in the atmosphere, which means savings in nitrogen fertilisation.
  • Less red meat. Based on international assessments the current beef production practices have the greatest impact on climate change and eutrophication. However, sufficient cattle production is needed for milk production and processed dairy products.
  • Fish belongs to environmentally-friendly diet, but threatened foreign species must not be used.  
  • Of edible fats the environmental impact of turnip rape oil and margarine is the smallest. The impact of olive oil is also smaller than that of butter.
  • In Finland tap water is a more beneficial choice for the environment than bottled water.

 

Change

Positive health impacts

Positive environmental impacts in the whole food consumption chain

Meat and meat products

Less red meat and meat products

  • Lower risk of cancer and, possibly, type II diabetes
  • Less saturated fat, lower energy density
  • Smaller carbon footprint
  • Less eutrophication

Milk and milk products

Less fatty milk products

  • Less saturated fat
  • Carbon footprint and eutrophication impact can be reduced, in particular, by selectively restricting cheese consumption.

Fish and crustaceans

More fish

  • More unsaturated fatty acids, vitamin D, selenium and iodine 
  • Footprint is smaller when using wild and farmed fish.
  • Use of wild fish reduces eutrophication.
  • Underutilised fish from the Baltic Sea region can be used as feed for fish raised in open water, thus compensating for the high eutrophication impact of fish farming.
  • Use of fish farmed in recirculation systems moderates the eutrophication impact.
  • Fish farmers have access to a method for comparing the eutrophication impact of different types of production.

Vegetables, berries and fruit

More fruit and berries

  • More dietary fibre
  • More water soluble vitamins and various minerals
  • More other useful compounds not classified as nutrients
  • Smaller carbon footprint.
  • Lower eutrophication impact.
  • When using wild berries climate impacts and eutrophication are due to the collection and processing only, and the impact is very low. The use of local products allows a local selection of foods and diversification of economic activities.

More root plants and vegetables

  • More dietary fibre
  • More water soluble vitamins and various minerals
  • More other useful compounds not classified as nutrients
  • Carbon footprint smaller especially when using seasonal products.
  • Carbon footprint of greenhouse vegetables varies a great deal depending on the production technology and season. The most advanced technologies allow to achieve about the same carbon footprint as in production in the open field.  Greenhouse producers have access to a carbon footprint calculator for comparing alternative production technologies and products.
  • Because of the closed systems the eutrophication impact of greenhouse products is small.
  • Risks to the environment associated with the use of pesticides can be avoided by using domestic greenhouse products.
  • Use of locally produced root plants and vegetables contributes to the diversification of cultivation, product selection and local economic activities.

More leguminous plants

  • More plant protein
  • More dietary fibre
  • More water soluble vitamins and various minerals
  • As nitrogen-fixing plants valuable in crop rotation.
  • Uncertainty associated with the environmental impacts of raw materials of foreign origin can be avoided by using domestic products.
  • Use of locally produced leguminous plant products contributes to the diversification of cultivation, product selection and local economic activities.

More nuts and seeds

  • More unsaturated fat and plant protein
  • More dietary fibre
  • More water soluble vitamins and various minerals

 

Cereal products

More whole grain products

  • More dietary fibre
  • More water soluble vitamins and various minerals
  • More other useful compounds not classified as nutrients
  • Smaller carbon footprint (except for rice).
  • Use of local varieties and processing operations located in the nearby areas contributes to the diversification of cultivation, product selection and local economic activities.

Dietary fats

More vegetable oils and vegetable oil based margarines

  • More unsaturated fat
  • Small carbon footprint.
  • Turnip rape oil production suitable for crop rotation.
  • Use of locally produced special crops or varieties and processing operations located in the nearby areas contributes to the diversification of cultivation, product selection and local economic activities.

Spreadable fats with less butter and milk fat

  • Less saturated fat
  • Smaller carbon sink and eutrophication impact.

 

Read more on the topic:

Health from food! Finnish Nutrition Recommendations (2014). (Only in Finnish and Swedish).

Plates, pyramids, planet – FAO publication on environmentally sustainable food choices (2016)