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Her task: to find nutritious, climate-smart food

News: Dec 11, 2019

Professor Anna Winqvist.

Today, methods exist for working out which foods are climate-smart. We can also find out which kind of diet is good for our health. But there is no model that combines both factors. Professor Anna Winkvist of the Institute of Medicine and her colleagues are setting out to remedy this deficiency.

To calculate the environmental impact of various products, a method known as life-cycle analysis (LCA) is used. It involves counting up, throughout the production chain, effects on the environment and deriving a figure, often expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2 equivalent, abbreviated as CO2-eq) per kilo of product.

“But when it comes to diet, CO2 equivalent is less interesting. The function of food is ultimately to give us nourishment, and at present there are no established methods of calculating environmental impact of food expressed in relation to its nutrient density,” Anna Winkvist says.

Potential support for consumers

Winkvist, a professor of nutrition and dietetics, does research in nutritional epidemiology. She was recently awarded just under SEK 3 million from Formas for a project aimed at devising a model of this kind.

“The focus is on methodological development. Our aim is to study the combined effect of climate and health on what we eat, so that consumers can take both aspects into account in their dietary choices,” she says.

Interest in diet is greater today than ever, with many different schools of thought issuing a wide range of recommendations, from a low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diet to locally grown vegetarian food. Winkvist thinks the reasons why diet is such a popular subject are not only the realisation of how important it is for our health and awareness, and of the strong cultural significance of food, but also the fact that food production and consumption are among the foremost causes of human impact on the climate.

“We hope our results will facilitate development of dietary recommendations that help consumers to choose food that’s both nutritious and climate-smart, which there’s keen interest in today. It’s really wonderful that Formas saw the potential of our work,” Winkvist says.

Building on unique research data

Underpinning the research project are LCA data, developed by RISE Research Institutes of Sweden, on Swedish foodstuffs. The aim is to combine these date with information about Swedes’ eating habits from two sources: first, the Swedish National Food Agency’s two major nationwide food surveys, on what adolescents and adults eat (Riksmaten Ungdom and Riksmaten Vuxna respectively) and, second, the Northern Sweden Diet Database (NSDD).

The latter is Europe’s largest population-based database on diet and lifestyle factors from a single country. It contains information from some 150,000 people in Västerbotten, in the north of Sweden, and the intention is also to link the to the patient, cancer and cause-of-death registers at the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare.

“Thanks to these unique data, we can develop instruments that quantify environmental impact, expressed as units of nutritional density. We’re also going to investigate how food giving various readings on these instruments is related to the risks of dying and of developing cancer, stroke, cardiac infarct and diabetes later in life. That way, we can examine whether these measurements are truly related to health,” Winkvist says.

The four collaborating partners in the project are the Department of Internal Medicine and Clinical Nutrition at the Institute of Medicine; RISE Research Institutes of Sweden; Umeå University; and the Swedish National Food Agency. Altogether, Formas is awarding SEK 107 million to researchers at the University of Gothenburg.

TEXT: KARIN ALLANDER. PHOTO: JOHAN WINGBORG

 

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Page Manager: Karin Allander|Last update: 6/25/2019
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