Food producers are increasingly trying to make their ingredients more sustainable, healthy, and affordable. There are many ingredients today in all sorts of food products that achieve the exact opposite aim: they entail negative environmental effects, they can be detrimental to human health, and they unnecessarily increase the costs for consumers (since cheaper, high-quality ingredients could be used instead). 

As we will see, often eco-friendliness, health, and affordability are interrelated when it comes to food ingredients. 

The Move to More Sustainable Food Ingredients

Let’s begin with the sustainability aspect. As a result of increased awareness about the wide-ranging environmental impacts of producing certain foods, companies in the food industry are deciding to remove these specific ingredients. 

One example is palm oil. This vegetable oil – derived from the fruit of oil palm trees, cultivated mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia – is present in close to 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets. It is widely used because it is versatile, odorless, colorless, and very efficient to produce compared to other vegetable oils. 

However, palm oil production is a major driver of deforestation. It destroys the habitat of endangered species like the orangutan, pygmy elephant, and Sumatran rhino, and it produces large quantities of greenhouse gases (GHGs), which, as we know, contribute to climate change.

While the benefits of palm oil explain the prevalence of its use in the food industry, consumer demand for sustainable palm oil products is increasing, and many want palm oil-free products. Environmental organizations like Greenhouse have criticized the notion of ‘sustainable’ palm oil. Based on these concerns, many companies are keeping palm oil out of their products and they make sure to highlight this fact on their packaging. 

To give another example of food companies shifting towards more sustainable ingredients, there are now many large corporations focusing on plant-based ingredients, such as Beyond Meat Inc., Impossible Foods Inc., Danone, and Amy’s Kitchen. Because raising livestock for protein requires significant amounts of land and water, it is less resource-intensive to make alternative proteins out of just plants instead.

Consumers Want Healthier Food Products

Consumers are increasingly placing a higher value on a healthy lifestyle, no doubt influenced by the pandemic. This demand for healthier ingredients in food has been matched by food companies’ efforts to both use these ingredients, advertise this fact, and make this clear on their labels too. 

We are seeing an increased demand for more organic ingredients, whole foods, fiber, whole grains, plant-sourced protein, and probiotics. The reasons for wanting these ingredients – and not wanting processed or junk food – include weight loss, energy, digestive health, and heart health.

Kellogg’s has removed artificial flavors and colors from its cereals, and Nestle has done the same for its chocolate products. However, when it comes to artificial food additives, these may not be the biggest concern consumers should have in terms of wanting to avoid health complications. 

In contrast, the evidence is strong that foods high in refined sugar, salt, and industrially-produced trans fats are detrimental to human health. In light of this evidence and subsequent concern and changing demand from consumers, many food companies are reducing or eliminating these ingredients from their products.

Affordable Food Remains a Key Concern Among Consumers

It is generally assumed that healthier food is more expensive; and indeed, research from the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) has found that price is the biggest barrier to following a healthy diet. Nonetheless, there are companies showing that healthy ingredients don’t have to translate into a higher price tag. 

Nestle’s research and development team, for example, is working to offer people safe, affordable, high-quality nutrition. This includes fortifying affordable products with essential micronutrients – such as iron, iodine, vitamin A, and zinc – that people require for maintaining good health. 

The company also states: “We’re focused on closing the ‘protein gap’ by adjusting processes, recipes and using local raw materials – to develop innovative products using affordable high quality, plant-based proteins.” Indeed, since producing plant protein is more efficient than producing animal protein, it can be more affordable to focus efforts on the former. It is important, however, for consumers to combine different plant proteins to ensure they get all the essential amino acids from them.

How Sustainability, Health, and Affordability Intersect

Sustainable food can be both healthier and more affordable, but it all depends on which ingredients are used. Yes, in general, organic ingredients will entail higher costs for consumers. Yet you can still promote health and lower costs in other ways. 

In terms of plant proteins, for example, certain nuts can be expensive because of the resources needed to grow them (e.g. water-intensive almonds). On the other hand, there are cheap, healthy, and sustainable plant-based protein sources like lentils, split green peas, green peas, chickpeas, and soybeans. There are companies working innovatively with these plant crops to produce snacks, meals, and alternative proteins that don’t have to be expensive.

Barriers remain, nevertheless. Given that meat and dairy products are heavily subsidized by governments while vegetables and fruits aren’t, it is hard for many companies to keep their plant-based products affordable. In light of this, Marco Springmann – a senior researcher in population health – argues “Redirecting subsidies towards the production of healthy and sustainable food should be an essential part of reforming agriculture worldwide.”

Don’t miss our March 2022 Agrifood Conversations where we will be focusing on these issues and more. Register for the series now.