Just as it did with our work schedules, exercise routines and social engagements, the pandemic has impacted our dietary habits. More than 80 percent of consumers said their food habits have changed since the outbreak: One in five are making healthier choices to support their own health, with many turning to plant-based proteins and 57 percent of respondents from another survey eating fewer animal products.
Yet as the demand for both sustainably produced and healthy foods grows, many companies offering such options still find themselves offsetting the positive carbon benefits of cutting animals out of the loop by packaging their products in plastic or using synthetic additives. One innovative company, for example, provides a great plant-based alternative to eggs made primarily from mung beans — unfortunately, it’s currently sold in plastic bottles.
Despite the best efforts from more conscientious companies, without sustainable practices from farm to fork, many foods might be "healthy" for the consumer but carry a big carbon footprint. Likewise, countless plant-based, sustainably packaged products out there might be good for the planet, but not for our insides.
Health foods that are not sourced, packaged or shipped with sustainability in mind have unintended consequences on the well-being of our planet.
One without the other isn’t enough, and with the pandemic bringing our personal health and that of our planet into the spotlight, the present moment offers a unique chance for humans to start prioritizing both — especially when it comes to food choices. In 2021, after CO2 atmospheric levels last year hit a record high and populations look to turn a new page, forward-thinking companies must lead the movement through a commitment to both healthy and sustainable food production.
No doubt it’s a challenge, but not impossible. With the help of a few strategic solutions, food companies can start to build health and sustainability into their very foundations.
Prioritizing both health and sustainability
When it comes to food, too many people see health and sustainability as distinct from one another. In fact, these two concepts are inherently intertwined.
Health foods that are not sourced, packaged or shipped with sustainability in mind have unintended consequences on the well-being of our planet. For example, the huge rise in the number of vegans in the last decade has at times had repercussions that are neither environmentally friendly nor beneficial for the health of the broader global society. By switching to a wider range of world foods to supplement a plant-based diet, such as avocados from Mexico or quinoa from Peru, people worsen their carbon footprint due to long-distance shipping involved. Meanwhile, they price local populations out of their staple foods.
Moreover, without building sustainability into the decisions we make around what we eat, we might struggle to maintain a healthy diet into the future, as climate change impacts farmers across the world and their ability to grow certain crops.
At the same time, foods that are bad for us but sustainably produced harm the consumer: Many plant-based meats, while a great imitation of the real thing, are highly processed and contain a fair amount of sodium and saturated fats. The Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger have been shown to carry a similar amount of calories and saturated fat as a lean ground beef patty. With obesity known to be a comorbidity for COVID-19, it’s never been more important that people take their health into their own hands.
Essentially, there’s little point in a small percentage of the population eating healthy foods that are unsustainably sourced, as those actions put the ability for future populations to do the same at risk.
Similarly, the excessive consumption of sustainably produced food that’s bad for the body damages overall well-being, which could inhibit the ability of those individuals to live planet-friendly lives.
Put the planet first with life-cycle analyses
Agreeing that it’s vital to protect our planet is easy — the supporting science is abundant and the consequences of climate change on our planet and societies is very tangible. Actually taking action on this knowledge and championing sustainability is the more difficult task.
Due to the higher costs of raw materials, health food companies often struggle to adopt sustainable practices from production to packaging to shipping. While some plant-based food companies make sure to use biodegradable packaging that won’t contribute to the floating islands of plastic in our seas — and some are even coming up with zero-waste packaging that you can eat — for others, it’s not yet been possible to leave plastic totally behind.
For companies determined to conscientiously and successfully manage the planetary cost of food production and packaging, a life-cycle analysis (LCA) can help. An LCA assesses the environmental impact of a product’s entire existence, from it being grown or created out of raw materials, through to its end-of-life disposal. LCAs also can be an important step towards identifying toxic or non-biodegradable packaging and finding alternatives that are friendlier for the planet and our bodies. In France, some products are displaying an "Eco-Score" label, calculated using the LCA model. The label gives food products a score out of 100, allowing consumers to easily assess the environmental impact of the item.
LCAs can be an important step towards identifying toxic or non-biodegradable packaging and finding alternatives that are friendlier for the planet and our bodies.
Organic snack company Prana, for example, worked with an external LCA agency to collect data on things such as the company’s electrical use, water consumption and employee transportation. The company collected environmental data on its top 20 ingredients and used these insights to make switches that were both better for the environment and financially prudent. By simply changing its source for almonds, the company saves 715 Olympic pools of water per year.
In using LCAs to assess energy usage and shipping distances, and making adjustments to reduce both, companies will notice their monthly outgoings automatically drop too. Moreover, by working with local NGOs, these organizations will gain insider knowledge on how to most efficiently source and produce food products, without underpaying the producers or disrupting local economies.
Unlock data-driven insights
Providing both health- and planet-friendly food products on a large scale, and in a way that remains profitable, is becoming more possible through big data and the insights it can glean.
For example, precision farming has been introduced to improve food production. By combining sensors and imaging of every crop with real-time data analytics, farmers can decide exactly when to plant, water, fertilize and harvest certain crops, as opposed to managing entire fields at a time. This approach increases yields and reduces waste, all the while helping produce food that is more nutritious for the consumer.
Another innovation taking place is using artificial intelligence (AI) to find plant-based replacements for animal additives. Food startup East Just uses robotics, AI, data science and machine learning to analyze hundreds of thousands of plant species and find alternatives for animal-based products.
Our company, The Live Green Co., used its own AI-powered recommendation engine to create a 100 percent plant-based ice cream. Using AI in this way allows companies to drive efficiencies as they cut out much of the manual work associated with food product development, speeding the whole process up and reducing reliance on human intelligence. Not only does leveraging technology such as this result in more nutritious and sustainable food, it’s better for companies’ bottom lines.
If we are to ensure a positive future for our planet and health and longevity for ourselves, food producers and developers must embrace ambitious changes — and in general, we’re all behind them. An amazing 86 percent of people want a fairer and more sustainable world post-pandemic.
Providing healthy, sustainable options isn’t easy, but we can take hope in the fact that it’s becoming more viable every day.