What is sustainability?

The following article was written by one of my best friends from my undergrad, Keri Peters. Keri has always had a love for food and developed an interest for healthier alternatives to some of her favourite dishes. In our third year of study, she decided to go down the route of nutrition and food science and in her final year she began working with Mara Seaweed developing vegan recipes including seaweed. Her final year placement with Mara exposed her true talents and her passion for sustainable lifestyle emerged. Now, a qualified food scientist she works for Borders Biscuits in new product development. Keri is the best person to discuss this topic as she has done extensive research in this area.

You’ve probably heard the term ‘sustainable’ quite a lot recently, mostly in reference to our diets and the planet. But what does the term ‘sustainable diet’ mean? And how can we ensure we’re doing the best for the planet with our food choices?

Well, defining what a sustainable diet is…. is pretty tricky. The literal definition of ‘sustainable’ as defined in the Cambridge English Dictionary is “causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time”. And so sustainable consumption describes how products used or consumed by us at present are done so in a in a way that reduces the environmental impact and in turn allows for generations to follow to meet their needs.


One topical example of this would be the consumption and use of palm oil (which has recently dominated headlines for the destruction of rainforests). We have used palm oil in an array of different applications for many years; chocolate, ice cream, confectionary, cosmetics etc. It’s a popular ingredient to use within the food industry as it’s cheap and adds texture and taste to food. It’s so popular in fact that half of the products available on the UK market contain palm oil – which poses a problem. Where is all this palm oil coming from and how do we have so much of it? Palm oil comes mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia, where there are plentiful oilseed crops. However, due to the high demand for cheap palm oil, farmers have destroyed rainforests and ruined the habitat for many endangered wild animals and indigenous people in order to keep up with demand.
So how do we stop this kind of thing happening? Well, thanks to the media many people are now aware of the issue with palm oil and many companies have chosen to switch to sustainable palm oil or eliminate it from their products. Sustainable palm oil is harvested in a way that ensures the environment along with their workers are protected (along with many other benefits), and therefore production can continue for the many years to follow.

This is just one example of what effect our food choices can have on the environment – scary right? When you scratch the surface into where our food comes from; the environmental, social and economic issues are pretty frightening. We have turned into a culture of fast food, convenience meals and copious amounts of food and packaging waste – we’ve been brought up thinking that’s OK, because we didn’t know any better. But, look how that’s affected our planet even in the last 50 years? Our oceans are polluted with plastic and rubbish that we don’t think about when we pick up a plastic bottle of Fanta and throw it in the bin – once that bottles been chucked away it’s not your issue right? Wrong. That bottle will end up in a landfill site or our oceans. But what if you recycle? Well, at least you’re stepping in the right direction, but recycling isn’t going to fix this issue. Recycling plants still need to run off energy to turn those plastic bottles into something else.

So what can we all do to help? Well, like anything you need to make small lifestyle changes that you’ll stick to in the long term. It’s very easy after Christmas when we’ve had a bit too much food and drink to turn around and go “I’m going on a diet” – and drastically change our diets to lose weight as fast as we can; not eating carbs, limiting our calorie intake, buying into ‘juice cleanses’ etc (I could be here all day listing fad diets). But how long do we ever last on these diets? A week or so at best? Just like these fad diets aren’t sustainable, neither is drastically deciding to become a sustainable lifestyle advocate. Making small changes to our daily routine is the best way to ensure we stick to them.

So what small changes can I make?

  • Buy a reusable coffee cup and water bottle. How many times a week would you buy a coffee to go, or pick up a bottle of water? The great thing is many coffee shops give you a discount if you bring in your own cup. Bonus.
  • Shop locally. Are there any markets or independent businesses around you where you can grab local produce? When we shop in large supermarkets we have access to an almost infinite choice of foods from all over the world (which is great). But do you ever check to see where that box of strawberries has been flown in from in December? Definitely not the UK that’s for sure. I’m not saying you should suddenly axe fruit and veg from your diet, but being aware or what kind of varieties are in season and checking where they’re from will definitely help influence your decision next time you buy! Shopping local usually means you’ll be offered fruit and veg that has been grown locally by farmers or suppliers.
  • Ditch the plastic bags and packaging. I imagine by now with the 5p baggage charge you’re more likely than not bringing your own carrier bags when you go shopping. But this point also refers to plastic packaging. Try and avoid using plastic bags to package up your fruit and veg when shopping and be mindful when choosing certain foods. Many food companies are making a conscious effort to reduce the amount of packaging in their products –watch out for those making the change.
  • Reduce your meat consumption. So this one is a pretty big issue that I could honestly talk all day about. The meat industry has had quite a hard time in the media lately surrounding the topic of sustainability. It hit the headlines last week that “Avoiding meat and dairy is the biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on earth”. This is possibly true. But how sustainable is that for each individual? There will be some of us who can quite easily follow a vegan diet and eliminate meat, fish and dairy from their diets. But what about those who can’t or don’t want to? That’s OK! I personally love food. It’s my absolute passion. I enjoy trying new recipes, ingredients and appreciate beautiful produce. For this reason I would find it extremely hard to completely eliminate fish, meat and dairy from my diet. In fact I don’t think I’d last very long at all. So is that personally sustainable for me and my diet? No. But being aware of the environmental impact of these industries I have been able to make small changes to my diet; such as reducing the amount I consume and opting to buy local produce.
    Making small changes to your diet such as; reducing the amount of red meat you eat in a week, buying locally caught fish instead of farmed or maybe trying to switch to having a plant based milk in your morning coffee can have huge environmental changes in the long term. Imagine we all made small changes to our lifestyle and therefore kept them up long term, how much better off would we all be?
  • Follow a plant based diet. When I say this, trust me, I really don’t mean we all have to completely eliminate meat and dairy from our lives. Ensure your diet features predominantly plant based foods; fruit, vegetables, beans, pulses, nuts – this not only reduces our environmental impact it’s also the foundation for a lovely healthy diet! Full of fibre, healthy fats, micronutrients and protein (to name a few), which F.I.G Nutrition has plenty information on.

If you’re genuinely interested in making a few small changes to your diet and lifestyle to benefit not only your life, but for the generations to follow – why don’t you take a few moments to just assess where you could afford to make a change? Could you tweak your diet to incorporate more vegetables? Could you swap those sausages for a vegetarian alternative? Could you try buying your steak from a local butcher, where you know the meat came from a town just across from yours? Not only would you be reducing the environmental impact of transport costs (think of how damaging and expensive it is to ship meat over from Europe), you’d also be supporting local business and I can guarantee that steak will taste a whole lot nicer!
If you’re the type of person who eats meat every day, could you try cutting down from 7 days a week to even 6?

A sustainable diet is not a one size fits all template. You must incorporate what you can into your lifestyle and find what works best for you. Small changes really are the key to sticking to change, why not try amending your routine a little to help the planet and be a little more aware and savvy when making food choices? Slow and steady wins the race… if we’re all a little more mindful, these small changes will have huge benefits.

Hopefully we can all take even one suggestion and do our bit. As always, small changes are much more beneficial than trying to change 100 things at once. Think about the generations to come, wouldn’t you like them to enjoy the beauty we currently take for granted every day?

If you found this article interesting please be sure to share with family and friends. For more on sustainability, you can find Keri on Instagram at @thefoodietech_.

Sarah x

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