26 April 2018 | Category: Uncategorised

Healthy food and a sustainable food system: two sides of the coin

By Thom Achterbosch

Healthier diets can be used to leverage sustainable global a...

How to stimulate large groups of people to make healthier and more sustainable food choices? As a scientist, I find this question intriguing. The focus of attention is not on the individual consumer’s behaviour, but on the food system this consumer is part of. This system provides the context in which people make their food choices. It is necessary to understand this context in order to change the food choice behaviour of groups of people.

All actions involving food, varying from production or cultivation, processing and consumption to disposal of food remains, are part of the same interconnected system. The European free market system is complex and not very transparent. However, it has a leading role in terms of managing the effects of food consumption on society and environment. Within the framework of the European research project SUSFANS, we have developed a number of instruments of knowledge which can be useful to European policymakers. We provide insight into the different expectations from consumers and governments within the EU regarding food. We have also developed an EU-wide measurement instrument to assess the system in terms of its contribution to healthy food, a solid living environment and economic strength. The alliance of these three disciplines is special, aimed at exploring different future scenarios and innovation options.

One European food guideline

This view of the system as a whole goes hand in hand with the development of tools to identify the food patterns of European consumers. Currently, each country is conducting research into this subject in its own way. Based on the national food guidelines from the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Italy and the Czech Republic, the nutritionists participating in the SUSFANS project have developed a European ‘common denominator’ (Mertens et al. 2018). This enables us to conduct comparative research among the European population. As a result, it also helps policymakers to determine which interventions are useful and which are not.

“The ultimate goal is to adopt a well-balanced food guideline which is both healthy and sustainable.”

Thom Achterbosch, Wageningen Economic Research

Linking health and sustainability

The link we make between ‘health’ and ‘sustainability’ is also very interesting. For instance, unroasted nuts can be part of a healthy diet, but their production requires a lot of water in areas where water is scarce. Although sustainable production is possible to a certain extent, there is a limit. The same goes for the production of rapeseed oil as an alternative to palm oil from the tropics. Looking at food production systems in this way enables us to develop scenarios for food production in a totally different manner. In order to do so, we combine two scientific traditions, namely nutritional analysis of individual-level consumption, and the use of complex mathematical models to make a comprehensive assessment of environmental performance and economy at a national and European level. These two factors are combined into an overall analysis of food and sustainability at the level of European consumers as well as the food system. The ultimate goal is to adopt a well-balanced food guideline which is both healthy and sustainable.


This ultimate goal is beyond the scope of the SUSFANS project. As scientists, it is not our place to make policies. Our aim is to provide different scenarios. For instance, take the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, which are part of a healthy food pattern. Currently, omega-3 fatty acids are mainly derived from oily fish. However, catching this type of fish is under pressure, mainly due to the low-value processing of bycatch into feed. An alternative production system can be aquaculture on a sustainable basis with algae as fish feed (van Zanten et al. 2017). This would mean a major transition for the sector. By assessing its effects in advance by using mathematical models, we are able to contribute to well-founded policy decisions made by the government and businesses.

I am convinced that the consumer’s food & health and sustainable food production are two sides of the same coin. That is why I think that policymakers in the Netherlands and Europe should integrate both perspectives into their policies. By conducting the SUSFANS project, we intend to provide a solid basis for this.

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By Thom Achterbosch

Healthier diets can be used to leverage sustainable global and European food systems.

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