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Nutritional quality to be included in food life cycle assessments

Blog post
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3.5.2022
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Merja Saarinen

The life cycle assessment (LCA) of food items’ environmental impact has already established its place in the dialogue on the environment and especially in attempts to curb climate change. However, the interpretation of results can be debatable from time to time, as the nutritional quality of food has not usually been included in assessments or comparisons between items. No well-founded or reliable methods, or even commonly accepted principles, have been available.

FAO:n ohjeistus vie ruokatuotteiden elinkaariarvioinnin pelisääntöjä harppauksen eteenpäin. Kuva: Emmi Kähkönen Photo: Emmi Kähkönen

Now, methodology development has picked up the pace. Right before the end of last year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, https://www.fao.org/home/en/) published methodology guidelines (https://www.fao.org/documents/card/en/c/cb8054en/) for the integration of nutrition and health in life cycle assessment of food items.

The guidelines also determine what environmental impacts should be examined in LCAs of food items. As a result, they aim to specify the more general guidelines of LCA standards that are applicable to all product categories.

The FAO guidelines provide two different and supplementary methods for the integration of nutrition and health

1) The nutritional quality of food items can be integrated into the functional unit, i.e. in place of kilograms, for example, when reporting the results of LCAs. Nutritional indices are among the most promising methods for this purpose, especially when several nutrients are to be considered at the same time.

2) Health impact can be assessed as a separate impact category alongside environmental impact.

Different methods can be applied to both of these. Overall, methods are still only being developed and stabilised.

The FAO guidelines are a leap forward in LCAs of food items

In the EU, more detailed guidelines for different food product categories have been set in the Commission’s Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) initiative, but so far they have not included any opinions on nutrition or health impact.

The FAO guidelines bring new perspectives to assessments and expands the geographic dimension to the global scale. In addition, they include all applications of LCAs of food items, ranging from research to commissioned assessments conducted by consultants. PEF focuses especially on assessments conducted and assigned by companies, as well as on their harmonisation.

Due to this difference, the FAO guidelines are not as detailed and obligating as the Product Category Rules (PCR) under PEF. On the contrary, the FAO guidelines emphasise that the methods selected must be proportional to the goal and scope of application of the LCA, permitting highly differing methodology solutions, as long as they are suitable for their purpose and justifiable.

Finland at the forefront in methodology development

The methodology development we conduct in the NEPGa project is well in line with the methodology guidelines and recommendations based on the functional unit (1) – Finland is at the forefront in this development!

The activities of the FAO’s LCA working group were coloured by the broad range of LCA applications. Firstly, the group discussed the fundamental question of whether nutrition should actually be taken into account in food LCAs and, if it should, whether it needs to be included in the nutritional unit or handled as a separate impact category representing nutrition or health. In the end, it was decided that different approaches are needed in different applications.

The activities of the FAO’s LCA working group will possibly be continued by making these different applications and the methods applied to them more concrete. These recently published guidelines pave the way for each of them. 

In Finland, development will continue in the NEPGa project, in which we are developing nutritional functional units for their product category-specific application to LCAs of food items and specifying how they can be prepared. Results can already be expected later this year.

Two Finnish researchers participated in the preparation of the guidelines: Hanna Tuomisto, associate professor at the University of Helsinki, and Merja Saarinen, senior scientist at Luke and the author of this blog, both of whom also participate in the NEPGa project. In addition, two people from Finland participated in the peer review of the guidelines: Ilkka Leinonen, research professor at Luke, in the field of life cycle assessments, and Marjukka Kolehmainen, professor at the University of Eastern Finland, in the field of nutritional science. Marjukka Kolehmainen also participates in the NEPGa project.

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