Sustainable and Healthy Diets in India (SAHDI)
Project lead: Dr Alan Dangour
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, University of Aberdeen and the Public Health Foundation of India
Food systems and diets are changing in India because of rising incomes, urbanisation and globalisation. This is contributing to a steep rise in non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes. Changing food systems may also have implications for the environment, including fresh water resources and greenhouse gas emissions.
The SAHDI project brings together nutrition, public health, agriculture and environmental science expertise from India and the UK.
The project has two main research objectives: to understand the impact of diets in India on health and the environment; and to identify the changes to consumption patterns or production that are necessary to ensure sustainable and healthy diets.
So far the team has produced novel estimates of the greenhouse gas emissions and water footprints of a set of newly defined and distinct Indian dietary patterns. One of their key findings is that diets in India generate half the greenhouse gas emissions of those in the UK. But there is considerable variation between dietary patterns – rice-based diets have ~67% greater emissions per calorie than wheat-based diets. Another key finding is that diets in India rely on double the volume of irrigation water than those in Europe. This has implications for freshwater resources in India.
Further results from the project’s initial phase will be used to explore the health impacts of reducing the water use associated with diets.
In SAHDI’s second phase, the team will focus on providing new evidence to inform policy on the likely changes in dominant dietary patterns in India up to 2030. With a particular focus on groundwater availability, the researchers will identify how the Indian agricultural sector will be able to deliver sufficient nutritious food for the entire population.
The SAHDI team is also working to develop an engagement programme with local schools. It will include citizen science activities around the theme of diets, agriculture, the environment and health.
Palm Oil: Sustainability, Health and Economics (POSHE)
Project leads: Professor Bhavani Shankar and Professor Richard Smith
SOAS, University of London, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
There is little awareness about the pervasiveness of palm oil in our food. Its prevalence in European and Asian diets mean it is now the most consumed oil in the world. While many of its qualities make it an attractive cooking ingredient, its health and environmental consequences are significant.
Previously, experts had only looked at aspects of palm oil in isolation. This study uses a transdisciplinary framework to consider three aspects of palm oil: health, environmental and economic effects.
The study focuses on Thailand, a significant producer and consumer of palm oil. Researchers are developing a model to look at the trade-offs between palm oil’s health, environmental and economic effects. The model will simulate different policies, for example palm oil taxation or investment in new edible oils. Using these findings, they will develop recommendations for the Thai government about the most feasible and effective courses of action.
This project has been extended to consider wider palm oil trading relationships in the Asian region and deepen the analysis of alternative uses of palm oil in Thailand, in particular biofuel production.
Spatial, social and environmental determinants of malnutrition in Africa: a pilot in Kenya
Project lead: Dr Jay Berkley
KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Kenya, and the University of Oxford
Determinants and drivers of malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa are poorly understood. While poverty and food security are recognised as determinants of malnutrition, factors relating to urbanisation haven’t been fully addressed. Without tackling these underlying factors, nutritional interventions are often ineffective.
This project seeks to understand how malnutrition is distributed in Kenya. The research team want to get a more accurate picture of what the drivers are and how malnutrition has varied over time, following trends in price, agriculture and urbanisation.
However, understanding the distribution of malnutrition and its underlying drivers in isolation won’t help to predict whether an intervention will work. By partnering with UNICEF, the project hopes to improve the delivery of interventions.
Piloting this project in Kenya will help to assess whether the determinants of malnutrition have been understood well enough to make predictive models and map malnutrition in other African countries, and to test the efficacy of various interventions.
Quantifying the human health value of global fisheries
Project lead: Dr Christopher Golden
Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, USA
Around 2 billion people across the world rely on subsistence fisheries to meet their basic nutrient needs. But fisheries worldwide are dealing with many challenges. These include unsustainable harvesting, habitat destruction and climate change impacts such as ocean acidification.
There has been little scientific research exploring how fishery declines are impacting disability and diseases like micronutrient deficiency among the global poor.
This collaboration measures the nutritional value of seafood around the world. The data will help researchers determine how expected changes in global fish stocks may affect nutrition within populations.
The project also considers how changes to fisheries affect the health of populations differently. By combining data from several existing mega-databases, researchers are developing a global model of fisheries and their impacts on health.
A paper in Nature shows how the project is impacting policy, calling for policymakers and international agencies to pay more attention to human health when deciding how to manage marine environments.
Environmental and nutritional interventions for improving cardiovascular health in rural China
Project leads: Professor Majid Ezzati and Professor Xudong Yang
Imperial College London and Tsinghua University, China
About 230 million people in China suffer from cardiovascular disease (CVD), according to the World Health Organization. China’s diverse geography, climate and population structures mean factors leading to CVD vary by region.
A research collaboration is investigating the environmental and nutritional factors that lead to CVD. The team are identifying better ways to measure short- and long-term exposure to the disease. They also want to find new, earlier biomarkers of CVD.
Once researchers have identified the environmental and dietary determinants of CVD in different parts of the country, they will develop and test region-specific interventions to prevent or reduce disease. For example, in northern China, people burn more fuel for warmth. This makes them more susceptible to indoor air pollution and consequently CVD. Such a complex challenge must take into account types of housing, as well as local fuel availability and infrastructure, to develop practical, feasible interventions.
Solutions will have social aspects as well as technical considerations. Working with social scientists, researchers will explore the cultural, social and behavioural factors that influence acceptance of a particular intervention. This will enable collaborators to develop more successful interventions.
Mini-livestock: insects as sustainable and healthy food
Project lead: Professor Marcel Dicke
Wageningen University, Netherlands
Feeding the world’s growing population both healthily and sustainably is a major challenge for current and future generations. Insects are a potential food source, needing relatively little land and feed. They are now being considered as alternative protein, with higher levels of nutritious minerals than conventional meat.
A research team is exploring insects as a source of micronutrients, particularly those with high levels of iron or zinc.
Researchers are exploring how best to cultivate insects as a food source. Insects can be reared on organic side-streams, such as food waste. Various side-streams are being studied as potential feed for selected species. The team will also investigate whether humans can absorb the minerals from insects through bioavailability studies.
The first nutritional pilot studies are being delivered in the Netherlands, but the team plans to expand to East Africa. In this region, around 2 billion people already eat insects, and 2,000 species are known to be consumed.
In the long-term, researchers want to develop cultural acceptance to promote insects as a food source globally.
Connecting dietary behaviours to health and the environment
Project lead: Professor Diego Rose
Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, USA
In high-income countries such as the USA, both health outcomes and environmental impact are affected by diet. So far, little research has considered individual dietary choices on health and environmental outcomes.
A team of researchers are filling this research gap. They are studying individuals’ diets in the USA, and are addressing health and environmental outcomes. One hypothesis they will test is whether self-selected healthy diets produce lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Researchers are developing a database of the environmental impact of foods, and linking this to US diets and individual nutritional health outcomes. They will use additional datasets to simulate various policy scenarios. For example, information policy could be an important step to encouraging people to eat healthier and more environmentally sound diets, but little work has been done on this in the USA.
Combining expertise in nutrition, food security, medical epidemiology and health economics, the team hopes that this research will stimulate an expansion of work in the area and foster cross-disciplinary work between the nutrition, health and environmental science communities.
Duckweed: a new sustainable protein source to feed the world
Project lead: Dr Ingrid van der Meer
The Plant Research Institute at Wageningen UR
Duckweed is one of the fastest biomass producers in the world. This easy-to-cultivate plant also has very high protein content, and could help to sustainably provide protein to a growing global population. However, the European Union and the Novel Food Regulation needs more evidence to confirm duckweed is safe for human consumption.
This project is analysing how safe and nutritious duckweed would be as human food. Researchers are analysing different duckweed ecotypes for critical traits such as nutritional content, pathogen resistance and growth rate.
They will also check if any anti-nutritional compounds, such as allergens, contaminants, toxins and calcium oxalate are present. These compounds can be toxic in high doses, and are found in some duckweed.
Researchers will then study in-vitro digestibility, followed by human intervention studies. They will monitor the rate of amino acid uptake in the blood once a person has consumed duckweed, and compare this to other proteins, like soy.
The team will then conduct consumer surveys to investigate how willing individuals and the food industry are to using products made from duckweed protein. Researchers hope that the project will ensure that human safety can be guaranteed in the development of this new protein source.
Future diets and health: how will environmental changes affect food availability, food consumption and health?
Project lead: Dr Alan Dangour
The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Imperial College London and Harvard University
Over the coming decades, multiple environmental changes are likely to lead to significant shifts in global food production and quality. So far, there has been little understanding about how this will affect the nutrition and health of populations globally.
A collaborative research group is taking an interdisciplinary approach to map the links between environmental change, food availability, food quality, dietary intake, nutrition and health.
Researchers are creating a framework to capture pathways – ranging from a global to a household scale – through which environmental changes may impact health and nutrition. They will focus on the impact of these environmental changes on fruit and vegetable yield, nutritional content and consumption. They have selected the UK, Mexico and Ethiopia as case study countries, and will apply the framework to predict the future health of these countries’ populations based on likely environmental changes.
The project is identifying where policy-level interventions can have the greatest impact on different parts of the food system. This will develop knowledge and understanding to enable policymakers to better support the health of their populations over the next 20 to 30 years.