Towards Environmentally Sound Dietary Guidelines

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Towards Environmentally Sound Dietary Guidelines
– Scientific Basis for Environmental Assessment of the Swedish National Food Agency´s Dietary Guidelines

Charlotte Lagerberg Fogelberg
Uppsala, 20 July 2013

This is a translation of the report “På väg mot miljöanpassade kostråd – vetenskapligt underlag inför miljökonsekvensanalysen av Livsmedelsverkets kostråd”, which was published in 2008 (Report 9-2008) and can be downloaded from the website of the Swedish National Food Agency (
The report forms the scientific background for the development of advice and guidance on how residents in Sweden can eat in accordance with national dietary guidelines in a more environmentally sound manner. Over the past few years there have been many requests for a translated version of the report.
Since the original report was published in 2008, many new studies on the environmental impacts of different foodstuffs have been published. However, the conclusions of the original report were made on a robust level and remain valid, while some conclusions have even been strengthened by results from recent studies.

Download the report here. (pdf)

The Swedish National Food Agency (NFA) has until recently focused its environmental work on the direct environmental impact of its actions, such as on heating, waste separation and travelling. However, since 2006 the Agency has been given another role with increased sector responsibilities regarding national environmental quality objectives and is now expected to coordinate and support players at the national level to strive towards ecologically sustainable development. With this report, the Agency lays the foundations for its work on environmentally sound dietary guidelines, which is based on nutritional needs.
The report discusses how Swedish consumers can eat from several food groups in a more environmentally sound manner. Based on present knowledge, the report indicates possible ways to decrease the environmental impact from consumption within the food groups discussed. The report is not intended to provide definite solutions but rather act as the foundation for a continuing process where future knowledge adds to further discussion, generating tangible advice regarding the food habits of Swedish consumers.
The report covers topics relating primarily to four of Sweden’s 16 national Environmental Quality Objectives (Reduced Climate Impact; A Non-Toxic Environment; A Varied Agricultural Landscape; A Rich Diversity of Plant and Animal Life) and to the national Strategy for Non-Toxic, Resource-Efficient Cyclical Systems (the GRK strategy). Overall, a number of different environmental impacts are discussed, rather than only climate-related impacts. An additional consideration was inclusion of the Zero Eutrophication objective for animal products.
Depending on how the studies available were delimited, the report discusses food production, transportation and handling of food in the household. The National Food Agency and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency have prioritised those food groups that are nutritionally desirable, i.e. products such as sweets, soft drinks, ice cream, pastries, snacks and alcoholic beverages are not included. Eggs are not included due to lack of data.
Within the food group fruit and vegetables, it would be an environmental advantage to consume more Swedish apples and Swedish root crops (preferably grown on mineral soils), and less bananas, grapes and citrus. A larger proportion of organic products would be favourable, particularly regarding bananas, grapes and citrus. It would be advantageous to increase the proportion of processed products originating from raw materials from local areas and processed using the Swedish electricity mix, and also to avoid freight by air or lorry.

It would be environmentally favourable to adapt consumption of fruit and vegetables to the domestic growing season and using products that store well (with little waste relative to the environmental impact of the storage process) from harvest to consumption. This is not a matter of excluding for instance bananas, mangos or imported winter-grown salad vegetables, but of regarding and valuing these products as more of a luxury in the diet. It is thus a matter of eating more products with less environmental impact and eating smaller amounts, less often, of products with relatively greater environmental impact.
Regarding cereals, rice and potatoes, it would be environmentally beneficial to increase the proportion of locally produced potatoes and to decrease the consumption of dried potato products. An increased proportion of cereal products from Sweden and its neighbouring countries would be an advantage. It would be desirable not to increase rice consumption further but rather replace it with relatively unprocessed cereals and potatoes. From an environmental point of view, organic products have an advantage in that they do not contribute to the dispersion of pesticides in ecosystems and that they are likely to contribute to increased biodiversity.
A general conclusion regarding legumes is that they have less impact than meat on the environment, regardless of whether they are locally produced or imported. Seasonally based consumption could be an important aspect of fresh legumes. Long transport, especially by air, of fresh legumes such as sugar snap peas and green beans generates a disproportionately large impact on the environment.
There is scope to decrease meat consumption without alterations to the present dietary guidelines. Lower meat consumption with appropriate prioritisation and distribution among meat types (beef, pork, chicken, lamb) may have several environmental advantages. From an environmental and an international perspective, Swedish meat production performs well according to the literature.
As a first means to reach the Environmental Quality Objectives, meat consumption can be adjusted by lowering the imports of meat and animal feedstuffs. Meat imports currently represent about one-third of Swedish meat consumption. National production of beef and lamb is necessary for the preservation of grazing areas. Beef and lamb should primarily be produced from grazing areas. Furthermore, choosing locally produced meat carries several advantages. For instance, it reduces the need to transport animals and feedstuffs and it also favours a more even balance between animal production and crop production within the Swedish agricultural system.
Regarding dietary fats and oils, it would be environmentally beneficial to lower the use of palm oil in the first instance, and olive oil in the second instance, in favour of rapeseed oil. It is generally desirable to choose organic dietary fats and oils. Concerning butter, from an environmental point of view, it is important that all products from the cow are utilised, i.e. both the lean and the fatty products.

Bottled water is considered a luxury product without any nutritional advantages over tap water. Lower use of bottled water would make a positive contribution to the GRK strategy. Bottled water generates only a small part of the environmental impact from total consumption in Sweden, but nevertheless contributes
34 000-74 000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per year.
Conclusions and recommendations from the report are simplified in the following points
Fruit and vegetables

  • Increase consumption of fruit and vegetables
  • Adapt consumption to the Swedish season
  • Increase the proportion of Swedish apples
  • Increase the proportion of Swedish root vegetables
  • Source perishable fruit and vegetables from relatively local and regional areas
  • Reduce consumption of bananas, citrus fruits and grapes
  • Increase the proportion of organically produced fruit and vegetables
  • Avoid products freighted by air and long-distance truck transport
  • Cereals, rice and potatoes
  • Use primarily domestic cereals
  • Do not increase rice consumption
  • Increase the proportion of potatoes from relatively local and regional areas
  • Legumes
  • Increase the amount of dried legumes
  • Increase the proportion of domestically produced legumes
  • Meat and meat products
  • Decrease total meat consumption
  • Increase the proportion of domestic products
  • Increase the proportion of meat and milk produced by domestic feed
  • Concerning beef and lamb: increase the proportion based on grazing and roughage
  • Concerning beef and lamb: increase the proportion of natural pasture-based production
  • Increase the proportion of meat from combined milk and meat production
  • Dietary fats and oils
  • Increase the proportion of domestically produced and domestically processed rapeseed oil
  • Decrease the proportion of palm oil
  • Decrease the proportion of olive oil
  • Concerning butter: increase the proportion of butter from cows that consume an increased proportion of domestic feed.

In addition to the above, in order to decrease the environmental impact from the Swedish food consumption, it is vital to decrease food waste, particularly in households and food service institutions, and to decrease transport along the entire food chain. It is also important that consumers acquire knowledge about how different foodstuffs should be handled and stored in order to avoid shortening the shelf-life. There are several possibilities for households to decrease their climate impact through more environmentally sound methods of food preparation, e.g. by choice of preparation method and by climate-smart behaviour within preparation methods. Other behaviours also need to be challenged to achieve a decreased environmental impact from food consumption. To increase the effect, environmentally sound dietary advice should include advice about consumer behaviours.
The report identifies areas where knowledge is lacking and where there is a need for further research.