Navigating Sustainability With Confidence
By Kate Geagan, MS, RDN
Vol. 25 No. 1 P. 22
Understand the Various Claims, Make Informed Decisions, and Better Counsel Clients
The creation of sustainable food and water systems to better achieve human and planetary health is ongoing domestically and globally, as industries and companies from various sectors are under intense pressure to develop new methods, processes, and product formulations to become and remain sustainable. With this push for greater sustainability, Today’s Dietitian takes a fresh look at the continued growth of the sustainability movement and explains how dietitians can make informed decisions about the products they buy and recommend to clients and consumers.
Seismic Shift Among Consumers and Businesses
Whether consumers are purchasing socks or sockeye salmon, brands and companies seem eager to share their sustainability story. Sustainability language now spans the entire retail ecosystem, and concepts have grown to include buzzwords such as “net zero,” “planet positive,” “carbon neutral,” “regenerative agriculture,” “climate justice,” and more.
If it feels as though the weighty topic of sustainability is enough to make one’s head spin, you’re not alone. Nearly every major industry is undergoing a seismic shift as companies seek to reduce business risks associated with negative impacts on ecological and social systems and align with global targets laid out in landmark agreements such as the Paris Climate Accords and the 2030 United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.
They’re also striving to evolve with consumers’ changing attitudes. More than one-half of eaters in the United States say they believe their food choices have an impact on their environment, according to IFIC’s 2022 Food and Health Survey.1 For younger consumers aged 18 to 34, sustainability is table stakes, with 80% of respondents saying they give thought to whether their food and beverage choices are produced in a sustainable way.1 And a 2022 State of Snacking Report by Mondelēz states that 85% of consumers globally desire to purchase snacks from companies actively working to offset their environmental impact.2
Beyond trends or even policy frameworks, sustainability also has become a big business advantage. According to the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business’s Sustainable Market Share Index, in 2021, sustainably marketed products grew seven times faster than conventionally marketed products and almost four times faster than the consumer-packaged goods market overall—which means there’s plenty of interest in companies putting a green sheen on their food’s story.3
RDs Play a Key Role
With dietitians’ unique positioning across numerous touchpoints of the food system—including the agriculture, retail, culinary, clinical, foodservice, community, research, education, business, and health care sectors—they’re poised to drive meaningful change when it comes to sustainability. But how can RDs keep pace with the fast-moving landscape to effectively help patients and the public make informed decisions about the sustainability of the foods and beverages they buy?
“The concept of sustainable food can feel instantly overwhelming, as it encompasses many pressing and complex issues, from animal welfare all the way through to public health, labor justice, accessibility, agricultural practices, and beyond,” says Ayten Salahi, MS, RDN, chair-elect of the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; executive director of the Planetary Health Collective, a food and climate advocacy organization; and CEO of Aysa Nutrition, a plant-based gastrointestinal nutrition practice.
“RDs don’t necessarily need a PhD in agricultural sciences,” Salahi says, “but we do need to be able to discern high- from low-quality research, strategically communicate the most impactful opportunities for action to our communities, and participate in work that helps make the most climate-smart options, the easiest options to access for all.”
Companies eager to produce more sustainable products often make bold claims to attract consumers and increase sales. However, determining which sustainability claims are meaningful and regulated and which lack standards that are monitored or enforced can be a challenge. Yet, to solve the climate crisis, it’s important to prevent companies from greenwashing, which is “the act or practice of making a product, policy, activity, etc, appear to be more environmentally friendly or less environmentally damaging than it really is.”4 The United States lacks robust federal reporting on this issue, but a 2021 European Union (EU) review by consumer health authorities found that 42% of online markets made false, exaggerated, or misleading claims regarding sustainability.5
Not all companies make deliberately false or exaggerated claims. But if RDs are more conscious of how brands may communicate information to their advantage, they’ll be able to make more informed decisions, whether it’s understanding sustainability claims on food products or evaluating sustainability messaging contained in industry-sponsored CPE opportunities, research, or materials.
Which Seals and Claims Are Meaningful and Verifiable?
One way in which companies communicate that their products are sustainable is through third-party seals and certifications on the front of food and beverage packaging. To qualify for these seals and certifications, products must meet a set of requirements and agree to independent inspection and public reporting. Typically, certification programs include a checklist of practices companies must follow (eg, the USDA Organic or the Fair Trade seals). And there are newer seals that include a measurement of outcomes achieved, such as Land to Market’s Ecological Outcome Verification seal, indicating that farmers and ranchers used a methodology to measure regenerative outcomes on their land that include soil health, biodiversity, and ecosystem function.
While there’s no single label or logo that comprehensively addresses all aspects of environmental, social justice, or animal welfare concerns, some come closer than others. It’s important for dietitians to learn what these certifications are and what they mean, work with clients to decide which factors are most important to them, and look for the right labels to support their goals (see “Resources” sidebar).
Sifting Through Unregulated Claims
Unregulated phrases such as “free range,” “cage-free,” “vegetarian fed,” or “pasture raised,” suggest but do not guarantee that standards have been met. These terms, while they sound good to the public, lack a formal verification process or independent oversight, so farm conditions may vary widely among different brands. Other phrases, such as “soil health” or “planet-positive,” are general sustainability concepts that are unregulated, vary in meaning, and are unaccountable.
One buzzword currently used in regulated and unregulated contexts is “regenerative.” The term “regenerative agriculture,” widely used and popular among consumers and industry, typically refers to farming practices that focus on improving soil health, crop diversity, and enhancing ecosystems. However, since this term has no formal, universally agreed-on definition, it’s used to describe a wide variety of scenarios (eg, incorporating unspecified amounts of cover crops or pollinator habitat into an otherwise conventional system). Unlike the term “regenerative agriculture,” the third-party certification seal is “Regenerative Organic Certified,” which indicates that the product has met a comprehensive set of social justice, ecological, governance, and animal welfare standards.
Carbon labeling is another tool companies and retailers are using to communicate carbon emissions data in easy-to-understand “scores.” For example, supermarket retailer Tesco, based in the United Kingdom, made headlines as the first supermarket to place “green scores” (in partnership with the Carbon Trust) on popular everyday staple products to highlight the environmental cost of producing them. In the United States, some brands work with independent auditors to verify and communicate key aspects of specific carbon metrics to consumers—either on the product or the company’s website. While brands tout the value of featuring this data to help the public make informed decisions that align with their values, Deanne Brandstetter, MBA, RDN, CDN, FAND, vice president of nutrition and wellness at Compass Foodservice, says showcasing such information is an evolving area. “While eco-labeling and carbon labeling and claims are rapidly growing, there’s little regulation around these claims and inconsistent processes and methodology around calculating scores,” Brandstetter says. “Until there’s more standardization, RDNs need to understand these limitations and communicate them to clients and patients they advise.”
Strategies for Success: What to Look for in Sustainability Claims
Despite the many sustainability claims that may be called into question, the following six strategies can help dietitians spot those that are legitimate.
1. GET YOUR BASICS DOWN. Learn about the concepts of sustainability in the article “Cultivating Sustainable, Resilient, and Healthy Food and Water Systems: A Nutrition-Focused Framework for Action,” published in the June 2020 issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, and Health.6,7 These resources highlight the multiple dimensions of sustainability that dietetics professionals need to consider (eg, sociocultural, nutrition, planetary, and economic) when incorporating sustainability into their work.
2. APPLY SYSTEMS THINKING. Systems thinking is a more holistic approach to investigating how a set of interrelated factors may contribute to the outcomes being examined. Misleading messages often focus on a single factor related to sustainability, while downplaying others that go against sustainable best practices. For instance, industries may overemphasize one metric (eg, carbon) and minimize others that cause harm (eg, agrochemical flows on watersheds), which can be considered a form of greenwashing, according to the June 30, 2022, article “Greenwashing: Your Guide to Telling Fact From Fiction When It Comes to Corporate Claims,” from the EU Climate Pact.8
3. BE DILIGENT. A single article or continuing education course may not provide the whole picture of sustainability, so research the issues and the industries and seek a variety of reputable sources. Evidence-based resource libraries from RD-led health professional organizations, such as the Planetary Health Collective and Food and Planet, offer a variety of peer-reviewed, published literature to help dietitians make informed decisions and have confidence in their clinical recommendations.
4. LOOK FOR ACTIONS, NOT WORDS. To avoid greenwashing, the EU recommends practitioners and consumers observe what a company does, not what it says.8 Some questions to ask to gain a bigger picture of a company’s or industry’s true sustainability practices include the following: “What percentage of a company’s (or industry’s) agricultural footprint uses the sustainable practice it promotes?” “What percentage of total revenue comes from products developed using sustainable methods vs those that were not?” Asking these types of questions is a best practice for investment companies when evaluating potential risk in the food and agriculture sectors and can also be a helpful exercise for dietitians.
5. BUY LOCAL WHEN POSSIBLE. The shorter the supply chain, the less likely sustainability claims will be misrepresented or confusing. Buying local enables individuals to connect more deeply with those producing their food—whether it’s a vertical farming or community garden project in an urban area or a rural farmer or rancher. Samira Zarghami, RD, CDE, an entrepreneur launching socially responsible projects, encourages buying local to bring sustainability to life. “When I spoke to a number of farmers and saw how hard they work on the land and how they truly pour their heart into the work they do, it completely changed my view,” Zarghami says. “I saw the care they gave their animals. I saw that they would sacrifice their family time to tend to the farm: they and the guests at a wedding would all leave to attend the birth of a new animal on the farm.” By forming relationships, Zarghami says, it’s possible to have conversations that can influence practices and share beneficial information.
6. RESPECT EVERYONE’S UNIQUE JOURNEY AND PRIORITIES. Ultimately, it’s our relationship with one another and the planet that’s at the heart of sustainability. Being intentional and thoughtful in how RDs approach the topic is as important as any other aspect of the patient-practitioner relationship. “Consumers are constantly feeling guilty when it comes to making food choices at the store,” Zarghami says. “They’re overwhelmed with facts such as local, seasonal, how it will affect climate change, and now the rise in food costs and impact of COVID-19.”
Good food is a celebration of family tradition, cultural foodways, social connection, and pleasure. Keeping these values at the center of dietetics practice is vital for empowering consumers and ensuring we’re guiding clients and patients toward choices that align with their health goals, personal preferences, and values while also evolving the nutrition profession.
— Kate Geagan, MS, RDN, is an award-winning dietitian and globally recognized thought leader on sustainable diets. She’s the author of Go Green Get Lean: Trim Your Waistline with the Ultimate Low-Carbon Footprint Diet, serves as a strategic partner to some of the world’s leading purpose-driven investment funds and food innovators, and is cofounder of Food + Planet.
The following list of organizations and resources can help dietitians get up to speed on what sustainable food labels mean across the food system and build confidence to evaluate sustainability labeling claims.
FOR RDs AND CONSUMERS: Food Print: Food Label Guide (https://foodprint.org/eatingsustainably/food-label-guide/) offers tools and resources to understand what different sustainability labels mean, which ones are the most meaningful, and which terms are unregulated. It also has a glossary of technical terms such as “rotational grazing.”
FOR CLINICIANS: Healthcare Without Harm (https://noharm.org) offers evidence-based opportunities for clinicians to reduce carbon footprints and promote environmental justice through health care systems.
FOR PRODUCERS: The Good Food Purchasing Program (https://goodfoodpurchasing.org) provides technical support to institutions so they can uphold more equitable, sustainable, and transparent food systems through value-driven purchasing frameworks that involve making purchases that align with fair labor, certified humane animal welfare, sustainable seafood, and other values encompassing sustainability.
FOR EVERYONE: Friends of the Earth’s 51-page report Spinning Food (https://foe.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/legacy/FOE_SpinningFoodReport_8-15.pdf) covers the most common ways people can be misled by brands, companies, industries, and stakeholders.
1. International Food Information Council. 2022 Food and Health Survey. https://foodinsight.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/IFIC-2022-Food-and-Health-Survey-Report-May-2022.pdf. Published May 18, 2022. Accessed November 2, 2022.
2. Mondelez International releases third annual State of Snacking report highlighting emerging trends and expanding role snacking plays for consumers. Mondelez International website. https://ir.mondelezinternational.com/news-releases/news-release-details/mondelez-international-releases-third-annual-state-snackingtm. Published January 19, 2022. Accessed November 2, 2022.
3. Sustainable Market Share Index™. NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business website. https://www.stern.nyu.edu/experience-stern/about/departments-centers-initiatives/centers-of-research/center-sustainable-business/research/csb-sustainable-market-share-index. Accessed November 5, 2022.
4. Greenwashing. Merriam-Webster website. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/greenwashing. Accessed November 7, 2022.
5. Screening of websites for ‘greenwashing’: half of claims lack evidence. European Commission website. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_269. Published January 28, 2021. Accessed November 7, 2022.
6. Spiker ML, Knoblock-Hahn A, Brown K, et al. Cultivating sustainable, resilient, and healthy food and water systems: a nutrition-focused framework for action. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2020;120(6):1057-1067.
7. Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019;393(10170):447-492.
8. Greenwashing: your guide to telling fact from fiction when it comes to corporate claims. European Union, European Climate Pact website. https://climate-pact.europa.eu/news/greenwashing-your-guide-telling-fact-fiction-when-it-comes-corporate-claims-2022-06-30_en. Published June 30, 2022. Accessed November 7, 2022.