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Is food a force for good for business?

Money talks and businesses have the power to change the world. The most significant players in the food industry are the big producers and retailers and their decision making is instrumental to sustainability and global warming. The choice is surely simple; companies need to take responsibility and become a force for good. However the big players are mostly listed companies whose responsibility is to make money and provide the highest possible return for shareholders. Governments nudge but rarely get involved in forcing change within business. That just leaves the consumer. If demand for responsibly produced food increases then companies will eventually follow.

But is making sustainable food choices good for our health? Ultimately for future generations yes as they will have a world to live in, but does it make our health better now? Let’s take a look at three of the most discussed areas of food and sustainability – palm oil, cows and organic production.

Palm oil is one of main causes of human deforestation and just under 40% of palm oil produced is used in the food industry. Palm oil contains 48% saturated fat, this compares to butter at 52%, olive oil at 14% and rapeseed oil at 6%. Saturated fat is an essential nutrient, however evidence shows that too much saturated fat is not good for heart health and also causes inflammation in the body. Instead we should focus on higher intakes of unsaturated fats which are present in greater quantities in olive and rapeseed oil. Palm oil is not good for sustainability or our health in too high quantities.

Cows are responsible for 8% of the world’s greenhouse gases and the use of antibiotics in animal production is the key driver of antibiotic resistance in humans. From a health point some cuts of beef are high in saturated fat, the negatives of which we have discussed. But beef does have good stuff in it too, in particular zinc, vitamin B3, B6, B12 and iron. However beef is not the only source of these good nutrients, we can get these from other more sustainable food sources. VItamin B12 (essential for red blood cells) is only found in animal derived food so vegans need to supplement. Cows also produce milk which is the richest dietary source of calcium – essential to bone health and muscle contraction. Other good sources of calcium are fish with edible bones, green leafy vegetables, almonds and sesame, but you have to eat a lot of these to meet daily calcium requirements. So while cows are one of the biggest contributors to global warming their contribution to health is mixed.

An important cornerstone of sustainability is crop biodiversity and the use of pesticides is thought to put this at risk as pesticides reduce bee populations. The question on whether organic food is better for our health is much debated but little researched. We have surprisingly little evidence to make this decision on. Insights from observational studies suggest that organic diets reduce the risk of being overweight or obese. But the research is confused by confounding factors as people who follow organic diets have healthier diets that include more vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, beans and pulses. Cell research has shown that some organic fruits and vegetables have stronger biological activity and are more powerful in fighting cancer cells. But other than the phenolic activity organic vegetables are not thought to be more ‘nutritious’, but this is inconclusive. There is also research supporting a link between neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and pesticides, but levels of exposure are those of crop workers rather than through consumption. Whilst the expert thinking on organic versus non-organic food is inconclusive there is certainly some evidence that organic food is better for health.

Whilst not wholly convincing, on balance making sustainable food choices is good for our health. As consumers we can make choices that are good for us now, good for future generations and be part of the movement to make Business a force for good.