Food systems and nutrition: transforming our diets with data
Nutrition strategies must consider both personal and regional differences. Here we explore how nutrition data is being collected and utilised in the food system to create healthier diets for everyone.
Our world is faced with broad and evolving food challenges, from climate change and biodiversity loss to food insecurity and the rising cost of living. We already know that drastic changes are needed in our food system to help tackle these issues, but within this transition we must not lose sight of one thing that is essential to our wellbeing: nutrition.
Nutritional food is central to our lives and one of the most important factors in food consumption is how it impacts our health. Food systems need to do more than just produce enough food for everyone; we must ensure that the food being produced meets the nutritional requirements of the people it is intended for – on an individual and regional level. Data shows that hunger and malnutrition continue to negatively impact people across the world, with healthy diets out of reach for three billion people (1). So, how do food system strategies need to change and what role can data play in providing evidence for action?
The role of data in creating healthy diets
Obesity, hunger and stunting of growth and development are caused by an inadequate diet and disproportionately affect people in poorer communities (1). While young people and women are the most vulnerable to malnutrition (1), the right to a healthy diet is universal. Food system strategies must therefore extend beyond national nutritional recommendations to more holistically consider how our diets should reflect our differences. This can help to reduce illness and disease on a more targeted and regional level as well as improve the sustainability of diets by focusing on local and seasonal produce. And this is where data comes into play.
Data can provide insights into the dietary needs of individuals, and also what this looks like in different regions and parts of the world too. External factors such as cultural traditions, environment and climate and the availability and seasonality of local produce can all influence the dietary needs of a region and its people. By better monitoring these factors and producing evidence-based dietary recommendations, diets can improve for both people and planet.
However, one major challenge is ensuring that the data is truly representative of the entire region and the people living within it. This can be addressed by using validated methods for data collection and analysis, as well as collaborating with and involving experts in the field to interpret the results. Another challenge is effectively communicating the findings to the public and to other stakeholders in a way that is easy to understand and accessible. This can help to increase the awareness and uptake of dietary recommendations to help drive wider change within the food system. This can be achieved by creating clear and concise resources for consumers and businesses and partnering with educators and healthcare providers to incorporate dietary recommendations into their practices.
Combining nutrition data with innovation
While personalised nutrition innovations such as BeYou’s health coach app are helping consumers to make more informed decisions about their diets based on individual needs, a top-down approach is also needed to bring adequate nutrition to larger populations. Through government-led nutrition schemes - tailored to national circumstances - healthy and nutritional foods will be better incentivised and consumers could have better access to the foods and products that meet their personal and regional dietary needs, based on data and insights.
By collating data and making it easily accessible, there is a huge opportunity for businesses and innovators to take action. Verdify, for example, has developed software for personalising online meal inspiration for consumers in the UK and the Netherlands. Based on data from the food interests of three million local food shoppers, Verdify has a mission to enable better food choices for personal and planetary health. Verdify communicates food and health claims only when there is sufficient supporting data from peer-reviewed articles or regulatory authorities and strives to only offer products and recipes that encourage the use of seasonal, local produce.
Take a closer look at three other innovative personalised nutrition solutions that collect and use data to support healthier diets:
- LOEWI: Making personalised health and nutrition available to everyone through blood and lifestyle diagnostics.
- Alberts: Combining robotics and AI to prepare personalised fruit and vegetable smoothies and mobile app food recommendations.
- Icesupp: Offering frozen meal supplements to people suffering from nutrition-impact symptoms and cancer patients.
Healthy food for everyone: our future food system
Looking ahead, it is clear that data can play an increasingly important role in ensuring that the food being produced meets the nutritional needs of people on an individual and regional level. The EAT Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health also suggests the focus is shifting from a one-size fits all approach for a planetary diet to one which reflects regional diets. The next iteration of the EAT Lancet report, due to be published in 2024, will include greater focus on diversity and the adaptation of diets. The insights and data gathered as part of the report can help to inform targeted solutions for ensuring nutrition needs are met at local and global level.
Health data is also revealing how the prevalence of key diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – such as heart disease, colorectal cancer diabetes – vary significantly across Europe. Better understanding the connections between NCDs and diets is becoming increasingly important as we strive for healthier lives through food.
We must work together to encourage a shift away from a one-size-fits-all approach to food and nutrition, towards a more tailored and personalised approach that considers the unique needs of different regions and communities. To increase food security and reduce the alarming rates of malnutrition, we must create a food system where everyone has universal access to the food they need. Find out how you can contribute and join the EIT Food community.
- FAO: Nutrition