How Nutrition and Sustainable Food Systems Are Inextricably Linked

  • Article
  • February 25, 2019

I recently had the honor to analyze current research and co-author a report on food security and nutrition within food systems as a member of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization’s High Level Panel of Experts. The report evaluated the most effective programs with the potential to shape food systems, contribute to improved nutrition and ensure that food is produced, distributed and eaten in a sustainable manner ― ultimately protecting the right to adequate, nutritious foods for all.

The report shares how the food and beverage sector is contributing to sustainable food systems to help improve food and nutrition security. Because the report questioned whether modern agriculture can help advance sustainable food systems, there is an opportunity for the agricultural sector, including the dairy community, to share how science, innovation and technology can help agriculture to become more efficient and sustainable. This requires us to view nutrition and sustainable food systems as being inextricably linked.

To emphasize that nutrition and food systems are inseparable, we analyzed food systems and diets across three dimensions: food supply chains, food environments and consumer behavior. Our focus included:

  • A conceptual framework for food systems and how they shape diet and nutrition;
  • The nutritional and health consequences of food systems and food environments;
  • Changing diets and what future diets may contain;
  • The main drivers of food system change that influence nutrition and diets;
  • Food systems and food environment typologies and their relation to dietary patterns and malnutrition;
  • Obstacles and opportunities that food system sectors will need to address.

What role can dairy play? Here are key highlights from the report:

  • Helping people make better choices to eat healthy diets composed of a variety of nutrient-rich vs. nutrient-poor foods was underscored. Dairy foods like milk, cheese and yogurt are nutrient-rich options.
  • Food systems can create healthy food environments by providing diverse options of nutrient-rich foods that are affordable, accessible and culturally sensitive. Dairy foods contribute nutrients important for health, and the dairy community can play a role in improving food and nutrition security.
  • The report defines healthy diets as containing fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains and moderate amounts of animal sources of foods (e.g., dairy foods, eggs, meat), as well as being low in nutrient-poor foods. The DASH and Mediterranean diets, which both contain dairy foods, are examples of healthy eating patterns provided in the report.
  • The DASH diet not only helps reduce blood pressure, but also emphasizes eating more fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy foods, whole grains, nuts and legumes and lower consumption of processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and sodium.
  • While the panel recognized that highly processed foods “tend to have higher amounts of saturated fat, sugar and sodium,” it also stressed the importance of education on the benefit of minimal to moderate food processing to ensure food safety and enhance storage life. An example of a benefit is fortification of foods to add nutritional value (e.g., folic acid, vitamin D), which can help close nutrition gaps.

The report concludes with a call to action for all sectors in the food system to be involved and emphasizes the need for evidence-based actions. The dairy community can better share its commitment to be part of the solution with examples of efforts to continually improve sustainable production of nutrient-rich dairy foods worldwide through the Dairy Declaration and the Dairy Sustainability Framework. Read more in our latest sustainability report and chat with me on Twitter @DrDairy50 as the dialogue continues.