Using vegetables as a pathway to sustainable diets

Diogo M. de Souza Monteiro & Lnn J. Frewer
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Diogo M. de Souza Monteiro and Lynn J. Frewer from the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University discuss the implications of the need to raise the supply of proteins to feed a growing population and how innovations in vegetable production methods could increase a sustainable source of proteins, rather than those derived from animals

There is growing concern among policy makers and other interested end-users regarding the sustainability of the current mix of protein sources for human consumption. In 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) hosted a symposium to debate sustainable diets and biodiversity, where sustainable diets were defined as “those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations”.

According to the FAO’s 2012 report on Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity, sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources (FAO 2012; p294). Notwithstanding the ongoing debate over this definition, a more pressing question is: how we can lead consumers and industry to adopt a more sustainable diet?

The most recent estimates forecast a growth of the population to reach about 10 billion people by 2050. These demographic changes require us to consider increasing the supply of proteins to meet growing demand. However, demand is not equal across geographies and demographic groups. In most western developed economies there is abundance of protein sources. But certain segments of the population, for example many older consumers, have protein deficiencies in their current diets.

In South East Asia, increased affluence is leading to a change of the traditional mix of protein sources toward a higher consumption of animal proteins (beef in particular), which has negative impacts on the overall sustainability of food supply. Taken together, the current trend towards increased population growth, greater affluence and the needs of different segments of the population has resulted in the need to maintain or increase the supply of proteins.

Vegetables have a key role to play

This outlook is leading to innovations at different levels. First, ongoing agronomic research is looking at ways to increase the quantity and quality of protein supply using innovations in vegetable production methods. Increasing the supply of proteins derived from animals may not be the most sustainable option. There is ongoing research focused on the development of alternative sources of proteins through biosynthesis methods. This is not entirely novel, as similar concerns about the scarcity of proteins in the 1960s lead to the development of Quorn (a fungi-based source of protein), which is now becoming a mainstream product.

However, the introduction of alternative proteins is associated with various potential barriers, including their adoption by consumers. The production of alternative proteins must also meet the current sustainability and nutrition targets associated with the production of those currently in production. In order to examine the value of these alternative sources, we need to understand their nutritional value, their impact on the environment and their socio-economic performance.

There are several products already available which can be used to increase the sustainability of human diets. Various others have been, or are being, developed. Humans are capable of eating and digesting foods derived from animals, fungi and plants. However not all foods derived from these sources have the same nutritious value or are equally digestible.

Moreover, both our nutritional requirements and our ability to digest foods changes with life course transitions. In addition, food choice is influenced by people’s social and cultural contexts. Thus, consumer adoption of novel proteins, or products containing these, may be variable.

This presents a challenge to policy makers as they consider increasing the proportion of alternative proteins consumed in people’s diets. It also requires industry to align production with consumer preferences as consumers start looking for alternative food sources to fit with their concerns over their health and environment.

Finally, academics will need to engage in research which supports both the public and private sectors, as well as to develop alternative insights into consumer decision-making associated with the adoption of alternative proteins, and translate this information into concrete and actionable policies as well as products which consumers want.

With these challenges in mind, a group of industry stakeholders and academics met in Newcastle during the last week of August to reflect on how to increase the proportion of alternative sources of protein, namely those from vegetables and fungi, on human diets.

This meeting was sponsored by the N8 Research partnership (the N8 is the group of eight leading research intensive universities in the north of England), and aimed to identify what are the most pressing challenges regarding the sustainable supply of proteins in the diet, and how these could be addressed collectively by businesses and academics.

Focusing on vegetable and fungal sources of protein, and reflecting the diversity of the group, two themes dominated the discussion:

One focused on the need to increase our understanding of the digestibility of protein vegetable sources, and their effects on satiety. It was also pointed out that some alternative sources of protein have other functional components that are beneficial (such as anti-microbial) but may also contain negative components (like mycotoxins).

The second focused on the need to understand the motivations and perceptions of consumers regarding the acceptability of alternative sources of protein. Representatives of both academia  and businesses agreed that more research is required to understand individual differences associated with  the nutritional benefits of alternative proteins, and the way these are perceived by different (groups of) consumers.

Vegetables, particularly legumes, are good sources of high quality protein. They also have important agro-environmental benefits in terms of soil protection and management. Moreover, they have other health benefits because they rich in vitamins and minerals.

Despite public health campaigns, fruits and vegetable consumption in the UK is below the average of most Western economies. In addition, when we look at data from Kantar Worldpanel consumer panels for the UK, and compare protein consumption patterns across socio-economic groups, it is clear that low income groups consume less protein from vegetables. This may be due to taste, inconvenience among a number of other factors.

Along with the need to understand the physiology, psychology and health impact of alternative protein sources, we need to better understand the barriers and drivers of increasing consumption of alternative proteins derived from vegetables and fungi for business and consumers across different socio-economic groups and stages in their lives.

Over the next few months we will develop some of the ideas discussed and hopefully turn these into exciting knowledge creation and exchange partnerships, which not only will contribute to more sustainable diets, but also improve food security and the competitiveness of alternative protein industries in Britain.

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