Nutrition in the life cycle assessment of foods—function or impact?

Abstract

Purpose

This work provides an unambiguous conceptual framework for inclusion of nutrition in Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) of food that enables the distinction between two different roles of nutrition, namely serving as the basis of food comparisons via the functional unit and as an impact pathway that links food ingestion with human health effects.

Methods

We compare how nutritional aspects have been considered in the functional unit of published LCAs of food with the procedural requirements for ensuring comparability of the functional units. We consider the relevance of nutrient profiling models for assessing food- and diet-related health damages and benefits in the context of LCAs of food. We finally recommend a method that will enable a systematic, comparative, and holistic assessment of the marginal health effect of food products on human health.

Results and discussion

Satiety is proposed as a central attribute for comparisons of food products, while weighted measures of nutrient content are suggested to be largely misplaced as part of the functional unit. In contrast, nutritional measures have a large role to play in assessing the human health impacts of the marginal ingestion of specific food products. Such measures should enable a direct quantification of human health effect and benefits and should take advantage of robust epidemiological evidence.

Conclusions

Nutritional measures enter into both the functional unit in the form of satiety measures and into the calculation of impacts in the form of the marginal influence of the specific food item on the human health impact of the overall diet. To enhance the differentiation of health impacts at the level of individual food items, it is recommended to combine the nutrient balance indicator with the DALY Nutritional Index (DANI) in each specific dietary context.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge Olivier Jollliet and Victor L Fulgoni III for providing access to data from the DALY Nutritional Index.

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Correspondence to Bo P. Weidema.

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Weidema, B.P., Stylianou, K.S. Nutrition in the life cycle assessment of foods—function or impact?. Int J Life Cycle Assess 25, 1210–1216 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-019-01658-y

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Keywords

  • Dietary risk
  • Functional unit
  • Health impact
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Nutritional quality
  • Satiety