The potential of future foods for sustainable and healthy diets

Non-conventional foods are gaining global attention. Insects, seaweeds and mussels, are increasingly produced on a larger scale outside their traditional consumption regions. Furthermore, foods made from microorganisms, such as microalgae and fungal mycelia, are currently produced at a commercial scale, whereas cultured-meat also known as “lab-grown meat” may be commercially available in the near future. The question, therefore, arises: are these so-called “future” foods nutritious and can they be produced in a sustainable way?

Dec 14, 2018
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The global food system currently has a considerable impact on the planet. It is responsible for a quarter of global emissions of greenhouse gases, it drives land-use change and biodiversity loss, and alters global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. The production and consumption of animal-source foods, such as beef, milk, and pork, is responsible for most of these environmental impacts.

In search for a planet-friendly diet, the main focus has been on eating more plant-source foods, and eating no or less animal-source foods, while the potential of what we call future foods has been underexplored. We, however, also know that animal-source foods are nutrient-dense, and provide us with a mix of highly bioavailable proteins, essential fatty acids, minerals and vitamins, such as vitamin B12, that the main plant-source foods do not always contain. We, therefore, wondered; ‘what is the potential of future foods, such as insects, seaweed or microalgae? Can they provide us with all the required macro and micro-nutrients in sufficient quantities and in a more sustainable way than current animal-source foods?’.

Hamburger made from mealworms. Photo credit: Tina Sturzenegger / Essento.

In our paper “The potential of future foods for sustainable and healthy diets" published in Nature Sustainability, we aimed to answer this question. We synthesized and analysed the available nutritional and environmental studies on future foods, and compared their performance with the main animal and plant-source foods. Our results show that future foods are attractive nutritious alternatives for current animal-source foods compared to the most consumed plant-source foods. These nutrient-dense foods, if smartly mixed, can provide the complete array of essential nutrients present in conventional animal-source foods. They, moreover, can be produced in a land-efficient and climate-smart way. In some cases, however, their climate benefits  do depend on a transition towards renewable energy sources, because unlike most conventional animal-source foods, greenhouse gas emissions of future foods mainly originate from high-energy consuming processes.

Mussel farming areas in Galicia, Spain, are frequently utilized by Bottlenose dolphins. Photo credit: The Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute (BDRI), http://www.thebdri.com

Does it imply that we should replace our animal-source foods by future foods? It is too early to give a definitive answer to this question. Our results are based on the raw nutritional composition of future foods. The impacts of processing, preparation and cooking on the nutritional quality, and the extent to which nutrients can be taken up by the body (bioavailability), have not yet been studied sufficiently, and therefore could not be included in our study.

Tubular reactor systems for micro-algae production at AlgaePARC in Wageningen, The Netherlands. Photo credit: Wageningen University & Research.

We hope our research will help to inspire highly-needed research in different fields, such as human nutrition, food processing and safety, technology and innovation, and enlarge the discussion on the potential role of future foods in our diets. We need to involve all stakeholders in society in the dialogue about the role of future foods, for the sake of the people as well as the planet

Read the full paper, "The potential of future foods for sustainable and healthy diets" in Nature Sustainability at https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-018-0189-7

Contributors to this blog post:  Alejandro Parodi, Imke de Boer, Adrian Leip and Hannah van Zanten.

Cover picture: Seaweed farming in the southern coast of the Korean peninsula (Jesse Allen/NASA EarthObservatory).

Alejandro Parodi

PhD candidate, Wageningen University & Research

Conservation biologist from Peru. He did a MSc. in Organic Agriculture and is currently doing his PhD exploring the environmental potential of waste-fed black soldier fly larvae in a circular food system.

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