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LCA Food 2016: The balance of core and noncore foods: a critical intervention point to concurrently address both healthy eating and dietary GHG emissions reduction objectives

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Abstract

In Australia and elsewhere, the escalating rates of overweight, obesity and diet-related chronic disease are major public health nutrition concerns. These issues are closely related to the interrelated problems of excess energy intake, excess consumption of energy-dense nutrient-poor noncore (or discretionary) foods and overall nutrient deficiency which characterize typical diets. In this study, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were calculated for more than 9,000 adult daily diets reported in the 2011/2012 Australian Health Survey. When higher quality and lower GHG emission (HQLE) diets were compared to lower quality and higher GHG emission (LQHE) diets, the difference in GHG emissions was 44% for males and 46% for females. The major differentiating factors were the total energy intake and the content of discretionary foods. However, compared to the national dietary guidelines, even males and females in the HQLE subgroup consumed, on average, less than the recommended minimum number of servings of vegetables, meats (and alternatives) and dairy products (and alternatives). Females in the HQLE subgroup also consumed, on average, less than the recommended number of serves of grains. Considering both males and females together, the average adult daily diet had GHG emissions 12% above a nutritionally complete dietary scenario based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
The balance of core and noncore foods: a critical intervention point to concurrently
address both healthy eating and dietary GHG emissions reduction objectives
Bradley Ridoutt1,*, Gilly Hendrie2, Danielle Baird2, Michalis Hadjikakou3, Manny Noakes2
1 CSIRO Agriculture, Private Bag 10, Clayton South, Victoria 3169, Australia
2 CSIRO Food and Nutrition, PO Box 10041, Adelaide, South Australia 5000, Australia
3 UNSW Sustainability Assessment Program, Sydney 2052, Australia
* Corresponding author: Email: brad.ridoutt@csiro.au
ABSTRACT
In Australia and elsewhere, the escalating rates of overweight, obesity and diet-related chronic disease are major public health
nutrition concerns. These issues are closely related to the interrelated problems of excess energy intake, excess consumption
of energy-dense nutrient-poor noncore (or discretionary) foods and overall nutrient deficiency which characterize typical diets.
In this study, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were calculated for more than 9,000 adult daily diets reported in the 2011/2012
Australian Health Survey. When higher quality and lower GHG emission (HQLE) diets were compared to lower quality and
higher GHG emission (LQHE) diets, the difference in GHG emissions was 44% for males and 46% for females. The major
differentiating factors were the total energy intake and the content of discretionary foods. However, compared to the national
dietary guidelines, even males and females in the HQLE subgroup consumed, on average, less than the recommended
minimum number of servings of vegetables, meats (and alternatives) and dairy products (and alternatives). Females in the
HQLE subgroup also consumed, on average, less than the recommended number of serves of grains. Considering both males
and females together, the average adult daily diet had GHG emissions 12% above a nutritionally complete dietary scenario
based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
Keywords: Australian National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, discretionary foods, energy intake, greenhouse gas,
sustainable healthy diet
1. Introduction
While the research literature pertaining to sustainable diets has grown rapidly in recent years
(Auestad and Fulgoni 2015, Drewnowski 2014, Garnett 2014, Hallström et al. 2015, Johnston et al.
2014), the discourse has tended to focus predominantly on the potential to reduce dietary greenhouse
gas (GHG) emissions through reduction in the consumption of livestock products (Aleksandrowicz et
al. 2015, Berners-Lee et al. 2012, Hallström et al. 2014, Scarborough et al. 2014, Springmann et al.
2016, etc.). On the one hand, this is understandable since livestock products usually make up a
significant proportion of total dietary GHG emissions. However, this focus overlooks the interrelated
problems of excess energy intake, excess consumption of energy-dense nutrient-poor noncore foods,
and the overall nutrient deficiency that characterize most real diets and are a major and longstanding
focus of public health nutrition professionals.
Over the past two decades, numerous public campaigns have been run in Australia to encourage
healthy eating and increased levels of physical activity, and to warn about the dangers of overweight
and obesity. Federal and State governments as well as a variety of community based organizations have
been involved (Australian Government Department of Health 2016, Australian National Preventive
Health Agency 2016, National Heart Foundation of Australia 2016, Nutrition Australia 2016) using a
wide range of public education strategies, including prominent print and national television advertising.
The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet (Noakes and Clifton 2005) and related programs have also been
prominent in Australian society. These initiatives have all emphasized eating habits which are
consistent with national dietary guidelines as described in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating
(NHMRC 2013; Tables 1 and 2). In general, Australians need to reduce consumption of energy-dense
and nutrient-poor noncore foods (Table 2) and eat more whole fruit, vegetables, legumes and dairy
products (or alternatives). It is also suggested that some children and young women may benefit from
the additional nutrients associated with an increase in red meat consumption (NHMRC 2013).
The purpose of this study was to use data from the latest release of Australia’s national nutrition
survey (ABS 2014a) to explore the role of noncore (or discretionary) foods (for examples see Table 2)
in the Australian diet and their significance with respect to dietary GHG emissions. According to
Australian dietary guidelines (NHMRC 2013), discretionary foods should only be eaten occasionally
and in small amounts. If reduced discretionary food intake can make a meaningful contribution to lower
dietary GHG emissions, then there is a reinforcing environmental message to support existing public
health education and the problems associated with multiple, and potentially inconsistent, public
education about diets can be avoided (Ridoutt et al. 2016).
Table 1: Summary of Australian Dietary Guidelines for adults 19-50 years (NHMRC, 2013). The
recommended minimum number of serves is described, except for discretionary foods where it is the
recommended maximum.
F
ood group
Males
Females
Fruit
2
2
Vegetables and legumes/beans
6
5
Grain (cereal) foods
6
6
3
2.5
Milk, yogurt, cheese and/or alternatives
2.5
2.5
Discretionary foods
3
2.5
Table 2: Examples of serves used in the Australian Dietary Guidelines (NHMRC, 2013)
Food group
Standard serve
Fruit
150g
fresh fruit
Vegetables and legumes/beans
75g
vegetables
1 cup of raw leafy greens
Grain (cereal) foods
1 slice of bread
1/2 cup of cooked rice, pasta, noodle, polenta
2/3 cup wheat cereal flakes
65g cooked lean red meat
80g cooked lean poultry
100g cooked fish fillet
2 large eggs (120g)
1 cup of cooked or canned legumes/beans
170g tofu
30g nuts and seeds
Milk, yogurt, cheese and/or
alternatives
250ml milk
40g hard or semi-hard cheese
120g ricotta cheese
200g yogurt
250ml cereal drink
Discretionary foods
75g ice
-
cream
2 slices (50-60g) processed meat
30g salty crackers or crisps
35g sweet plain biscuits
1 tblsp jam or honey
25g chocolate
20g butter
375ml soft drink (sugar sweetened)
60g fried hot chips
200ml wine
400ml standard beer
2. Methods
Dietary intake data, collected using a structured 24-hour recall process and over a 13-month period
from May 2011 through to June the following year, were obtained from the Australian National
Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey (ABS 2014a). The data covered 9,341 individual adult daily
diets and more than 4,500 different foods that were reported to have been eaten. After disaggregation
of multicomponent foods and mixed dishes into basic ingredients, the dietary intake data were aligned
with the 192 food-related sectors of a highly disaggregated environmentally extended input-output
model of the Australian economy (Lenzen et al. 2014) using median prices in a supermarket pricing
database. Adjustments were made for under-reporting, following Australian Bureau of Statistics
estimates (ABS 2014b), with consistent application across all food items. Whilst it is possible that
under-reporting was biased toward certain types of foods (e.g. discretionary foods), insufficient
evidence existed to support a method which involved specific allocation of under-reported food energy.
In short, food intake was adjusted to achieve an average adult ratio of energy intake to basal metabolic
rate (EI/BMR) of 1.55, being the average energy requirement for a normally active but sedentary
population. For each individual, energy intake (kJ), GHG emissions (kg CO2e) and diet quality score
(Golley et al. 2014) were then calculated. The diet quality score assessed overall compliance with the
Australian Dietary Guidelines (NHMRC 2013). For the purpose of analysis, individuals were grouped
into four quadrants, ranking them according to total dietary GHG emissions and diet quality score
relative to the mean (Fig 1). Comparisons were made between the average adult diet, those diets with
lower diet quality score and higher GHG emissions (LQHE), those diets with higher diet quality score
and lower GHG emissions (HQLE), and a diet consistent with the Australian Dietary Guidelines
(NHMRC 2013; see Hendrie et al. 2014 for details). Males and females were considered separately.
Figure 1: Matrix of diet quality and GHG emission for individual Australian adult daily diets
3. Results
Individuals in the HQLE subgroup had much lower dietary GHG emissions than individuals in the
LQHE subgroup (44% lower for males, Table 3 and 46% lower for females, Table 4). The
overwhelming difference between the HQLE and LQHE diets was the intake of discretionary foods and
resultant total energy intake. For the HQLE diet, males consumed 2.6 serves per day of discretionary
foods, which is marginally less than the recommended maximum of 3.0 serves per day. In contrast,
males who were part of the LQHE subgroup consumed an average of 14.8 serves per day of
discretionary foods. Females who were part of the HQLE subgroup also consumed marginally less than
the recommended maximum number of serves of discretionary foods (2.4 serves per day compared to
2.5 serves per day). However, like males in the LQHE subgroup, females in this subgroup also vastly
exceeded the recommended intake with an average of 11.3 serves of discretionary foods per day.
Compared to the LQHE subgroup, the HQLE subgroup had a higher average daily intake of fruits,
vegetables and grains and a lower average daily intake of meats (and alternatives) and dairy products
(and alternatives) (Tables 3 and 4). However, the differences were small in comparison to the very large
differences in discretionary foods described above. Compared to the recommended diet, both males and
Lower DQ
Higher GHGE
Higher
DQ
Lower GHGE
Table 3: Food intake (in serves) and daily GHG emissions (kg CO2e) for four Australian dietary patterns (see text for details) for males aged 19-50 years
Food group
Higher quality/Lower
emissions
(9550 kJ)
Lower quality/Higher
emissions
(16,824 kJ)
Average daily diet
(13,614 kJ)
Recommended diet for
males aged 19-50 years
(11,047 kJ)
Intake
Emissions
Intake
Emissions
Intake
Emissions
Intake
Emissions
Fruit
3.0
1.0
2.4
0.8
2.6
0.9
2.0
0.7
Vegetables and legumes/beans
4.4
1.6
2.7
1.0
3.5
1.3
6.0
2.2
Grain (cereal) foods
6.0
2.9
4.8
2.3
5.5
2.6
6.0
2.8
2.2
7
.8
3.7
13.2
3.5
12.7
3.0
10.8
Milk, yogurt, cheese and/or alternatives
1.6
1.8
1.8
2.2
1.8
2.2
2.5
2.9
Discretionary foods
2.6
2.1
14.8
11.3
8.5
6.5
3.0
2.3
Total GHG emissions
17.2
30.7
26.2
21.8
Table 4: Food intake (in serves) and daily GHG emissions (kg CO2e) for four Australian dietary patterns (see text for details) for females aged 19-50 years
Food group
Higher quality/Lower
emissions
(7975 kJ)
Lower quality/Higher
emissions
(13,974 kJ)
Average daily diet
(10,226 kJ)
Recommended diet for
females aged 19-50 yrs
(10,148 kJ)
Intake
Emissions
Intake
Emissions
Intake
Emissions
Intake
Emissions
Fruit
2.3
0.8
1.9
0.7
2.0
0.7
2.0
0.7
Vegetables and legumes/beans
3.8
1.4
2.5
1.0
3.3
1.2
5.0
1.8
Grain
(cereal) foods
4.4
2.2
3.5
1.7
4.2
2.0
6.0
2.8
2.0
7.3
3.8
13.7
2.6
9.4
2.5
9.0
Milk, yogurt, cheese and/or alternatives
1.4
1.7
1.9
2.3
1.6
1.8
2.5
2.9
Discretionary foods
2.4
1.8
11.3
8.7
5
.9
4.4
2.5
1.9
Total GHG
emissions
15.1
27.8
19.7
19.2
females in the HQLE subgroup consumed, on average, less than the recommended minimum number
of servings of vegetables, meats (and alternatives) and dairy products (and alternatives). Females in the
HQLE subgroup also consumed, on average, less than the recommended number of serves of grains
(4.4. serves per day compared to 6.0). Males in the HQLE subgroup met the recommended minimum
intake only for fruits and grains. Females in this subgroup met the recommended minimum intake only
for fruits. As such, even though the HQLE diets were superior to the LQHE diets, they were, on average,
far from ideal.
Interestingly, there was no obvious difference between the GHG emissions intensity of the meats
(and alternatives) food group between the HQLE and LQHE subgroups (3.6 kg CO2e per serve each),
suggesting that, on average, there were no major differences in the choice of meats and alternatives
eaten. The strongest association was between total energy intake and GHG emissions (r=0.54, P<0.001).
Comparing the average adult and recommended adult diets, the GHG emissions were 23% higher
for the average male diet and 1% higher for the average female diet (Tables 3 and 4). On average, males
consumed almost three times the recommended maximum number of serves per day of discretionary
foods (8.5 serves per day compared to 3.0 serves per day). Though less pronounced, they also consumed
above the recommended number of serves of fruits and meat (and alternatives) and less than the
recommended number of serves of vegetables, grains and dairy products (and alternatives). Similarly,
on average, females consumed discretionary foods in excessive qualities (5.9 serves per day compared
to a recommended maximum of 2.5 serves per day). On average, they also consumed too few serves of
vegetables, grains and dairy products (and alternatives). Considering adult males and females together,
the average daily diet had GHG emissions 12% above the dietary scenario based on the Australian
Dietary Guidelines.
4. Discussion
This study differs from most other studies of dietary GHG emissions by focusing on discretionary
foods rather than livestock products. Obviously, if individuals seek to aggressively reduce dietary GHG
emissions then vegetarian or vegan diets may be appropriate provided care is also taken to avoid the
risks of personal micronutrient deficiency. However, suggestions to consume less livestock products
are not generally well aligned with existing national dietary guidance in Australia and elsewhere, they
pose risks in the case of population subgroups like children, pregnant women and the elderly (Temme
et al. 2015a), and may not be culturally acceptable in many cases (Macdiarmid et al. 2016, Temme et
al. 2015b). As such, strategies to reduce dietary GHG emissions based on livestock products may have
limited effectiveness. In contrast, strategies based on limiting intake of noncore or discretionary foods
have no known health risks, are fully coherent with existing national dietary guidance and also have
outstanding potential to achieve dietary GHG emissions reduction. If the subgroup of Australian adult
males with the lowest diet quality scores and highest dietary GHG emissions (LQHE) reduced their
intake of discretionary foods from the current 14.8 serves per day to the recommended maximum of 3.0
serves per day, the GHG emissions savings would be almost 30% (Table 3). Similarly, if the subgroup
of Australian adult females with the lowest diet quality scores and highest dietary GHG emissions
reduced their intake of discretionary foods from the current 11.3 serves per day to the recommended
maximum of 2.5 serves per day, the GHG emissions savings would be 25% (Table 4). If the
discretionary food intake for these groups was further reduced to the levels reported by the HQLE
subgroup, the GHG emissions benefits would be even greater again.
However, as described by Hendrie et al. (2014), the limitation of discretionary foods needs to be
balanced by adequate intake of core foods in order to achieve a nutritionally complete diet. Not all diets
which are lower in GHG emissions are necessarily healthy. Some lower GHG emission diets are
reported to be higher in sugar and lower in micronutrient content (Payne et al. 2016). In the Australian
context, even the subgroup with highest diet quality score (HQLE) was below the recommended level
of intake for several food groups, including vegetables (Tables 3 and 4). It is therefore an important
finding that a nutrient rich adult diet that meets the requirements of the Australian Guide to Health
Eating (NHMRC 2013) is also lower in GHG emissions than the average adult daily diet. The 12%
lower GHG emissions reported here, based on the 2011/2012 Australian dietary data, is less than the
previously reported 25% based on the 1995 dietary data (Hendrie et al. 2014), but is nonetheless
sizeable. Other studies have also reported GHG emissions benefits of recommended diets relative to
average diets of up to 17% (Green et al. 2015, van Dooren et al. 2014, Meier and Christen 2013). Taken
together, these studies highlight the GHG emissions reduction potential of adopting healthy diets
without reducing flexibility by narrowing healthy food options. Naturally, strict optimized diets can
achieve much greater GHG emissions cuts (Perignon et al. 2016, van Dooren et al. 2015, Wilson et al.
2013), but the likelihood of any significant proportion of the population adopting such optimized diets
must be questioned and the cumulative impact of a minor proportion of the population adopting these
diets will be small in comparison to shifts toward sustainable healthy diets which are more mainstream.
5. Conclusions
In Australia and elsewhere, the escalating rates of overweight, obesity and diet-related chronic
disease are major public health nutrition concerns. These issues are closely related to the interrelated
problems of excess energy intake, excess consumption of energy-dense nutrient-poor noncore foods
and overall nutrient deficiency which characterize typical diets. When higher quality and lower GHG
emission diets in Australia were compared to lower quality and higher GHG emission diets, we found
the major differentiating factors were the content of discretionary foods and total energy intake.
Recommendations to limit discretionary food consumption are consistent with existing national dietary
guidance, have no known health risks and can contribute large dietary GHG emission benefits.
6. Acknowledgement
This study was funded, in part, by Meat and Livestock Australia (Project NO. D.BHR.1601).
Veronique Droulez, Nutrition Manager, Meat and Livestock Australia read and had opportunity to
comment on a draft manuscript.
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... A diet with small carbon footprint is not necessarily more nutritious than a diet with large carbon footprint (23,24) . A systematic review of dietary scenarios (24) reported that diets with low GHGE were often low in essential micronutrients. ...
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... Importantly, there is already a wide range of dietary patterns in the community that have the characteristics of lower GHG emissions as well as higher nutritional quality. In an Australian study, which was based on >9000 individual adult daily diets, the differences in GHG emissions between the higher-quality, lower-GHGemission dietary pattern subgroup and the lower-quality, higher-GHG-emission dietary pattern subgroup were 44% for men and 46% for women (152). Critically, the primary differentiating characteristic was the content of energydense and nutrient-poor noncore (or discretionary) foods (including alcoholic beverages, sugar-sweetened beverages, confectionary, baked and salted snacks, desserts, and processed meats). ...
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The food system is a major source of environmental impact, and dietary change has been recommended as an important and necessary strategy to reduce this impact. However, assessing the environmental performance of diets is complex due to the many types of foods eaten and the diversity of agricultural production systems and local environmental settings. To assess the state of science and identify knowledge gaps, an integrative review of the broad topic of environment and diet was undertaken, with particular focus on the completeness of coverage of environmental concerns and the metrics used. Compared with the 14 discrete environmental areas of concern identified in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the located journal literature mainly addressed greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and, to a lesser extent, land and water use. Some relevant concerns were rarely addressed or not addressed at all. In the case of GHG emissions, changes in land use and soil carbon stocks were seldom considered. This represents a disconnect between the science informing strategic climate action in the agricultural sector and the science informing public health nutrition. In the case of land and water use, few studies used metrics that are appropriate in a life-cycle context. Some metrics produce inherently biased results, which misinform about environmental impact. The limited evidence generally points to recommended diets having lower environmental impacts than typical diets, although not in every case. This is largely explained by the overconsumption of food energy associated with average diets, which is also a major driver of obesity. A shared-knowledge framework is identified as being needed to guide future research on this topic. Until the evidence base becomes more complete, commentators on sustainable diets should not be quick to assume that a dietary strategy to reduce overall environmental impact can be readily defined or recommended.
... Importantly, there is already a wide range of dietary patterns in the community that have the characteristics of lower GHG emissions as well as higher nutritional quality. In an Australian study, which was based on >9000 individual adult daily diets, the differences in GHG emissions between the higher-quality, lower-GHGemission dietary pattern subgroup and the lower-quality, higher-GHG-emission dietary pattern subgroup were 44% for men and 46% for women (152). Critically, the primary differentiating characteristic was the content of energydense and nutrient-poor noncore (or discretionary) foods (including alcoholic beverages, sugar-sweetened beverages, confectionary, baked and salted snacks, desserts, and processed meats). ...
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Recommended diets in Australia are nutrient rich and have lower greenhouse gas emissions - Volume 19 Issue 17 - Bradley Ridoutt, Gilly Hendrie, Manny Noakes
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