Sustainability + Nutrition
sustainable agriculture healthy diets
Healthy diets are good for our bodies and good for the planet
Sustainability + Nutrition

Food provides a close connection to our environment. Healthy diets should be good for our bodies and good for the planet ... and nutrition is important to eating sustainably.

All food production incurs varying environmental "costs," but it is important to consider those costs in the context of the nutritional "dividends" provided by the food. Experts are just now starting to develop models that track the environmental impact of foods in the context of the nutritional benefits they offer. 

One of the first studies to explore this, a 2010 Swedish study, established the new Nutrient Density to Climate Impact (NDCI) Index to compare beverages within this broader context.Those with the highest index value had the highest nutrient density scores in relation to GHG emissions. The NDCI for milk was 0.54, compared to 0.25 for soy drink and 0.28 for orange juice. Carbonated water, soft drinks and beer all scored zero due to their low nutritional value; red wine and oat drink scored below 0.1.

Factoring nutrient density into the discussions of carbon footprint and environmental tolls for various food products is essential, and more studies will be needed to provide a complete picture of a food’s environmental impact.

The Nutrient-Rich Foods Coalition, after years of testing and analysis, developed the Nutrient Rich Foods (NRF) Index2 to help people have healthier diets by choosing more nutrient-rich foods from all food groups. The NRF Index provides a scientifically valid definition of nutrient density – including nutrients to encourage and nutrients to limit. At roughly $0.25 per serving, low fat milk and dairy foods offer a clear nutritional and economic value, providing:

  • Calcium - 30% Daily Value (DV)
  • Riboflavin - 26% DV
  • Phosphorous - 25% DV
  • Vitamin D - 25% DV
  • Vitamin B12 – 22% DV
  • Protein – 16% DV
  • Potassium - 11% DV
  • Vitamin A - 10% DV
  • Niacin - 10% DV

Dairy’s role in a healthy diet for Americans has long been endorsed by the nutrition and science communities. Several leading health organizations in the U.S.--including the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans--and throughout the world recommend three servings a day which provide the main source of nutrients of public health concern: calcium (75 percent), potassium (56 percent), and vitamin D (28 percent). If dairy’s nutritional density is considered, alternatives such as canned bony fish or three or more servings of cooked leafy greens per day look much less feasible. Alternatives such as calcium-fortified orange juice come with more calories and higher cost for the same calcium intake.

Due to dairy's nutritional powerhouse, we would be remiss if we did not include nutritional and economic factors in discussions of sustainability.

1Smedman A et al. Nutrient density of beverages in relation to climate impact. Food Nutr Res 2010;54.

2Mobley AR et al. Putting the nutrient-rich foods index into practice. J Am Coll Nutr 2009;28(4):427S-35S.