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The Trend

A shocking realisation is that the most serious damage to the environment is not caused by energy or transport choices, but rather our own food system, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) UK.

Conscious consumers consider how their purchasing choices impact the environment. From fast fashion to fast food, they want to know more about raw materials and where and how they are sourced. To gain this growing group of consumers’ support, brands are compelled to demonstrate their commitment to a sustainable environment.

When it comes to food, this trend intensifies as people rely on what is being supplied to provide them with the required nutrition to fuel a healthy body. There is currently an unsustainable reliance on a narrow range of foods with 75% of the global food supply coming from only 12 plant and 5 animal species. Rice, maize and wheat make up nearly 60 percent of calories from plants in the entire human diet, however, this excludes many valuable sources of nutrition. While people may be getting sufficient calories, these narrow diets are not providing enough vitamins and minerals.

Adding more variety to meals is fuelled by two growing movements: environmental sustainability and healthy eating

Large scale, practical solutions are essential to make the required changes to reverse decades of monoculture and concentration globally. Unilever has taken up this challenge with Knorr Professional, in partnership with the WWF, spearheading an initiative to provide people with more food choices.

The Future 50 Foods Report identified 50 foods that should be eaten more frequently as they are nutritious, have a lower environmental impact than animal-based foods, can be affordable and accessible, and taste good. Identifying these 50 foods is the first step but individual effort and commitment is needed to bring about real change. It is now up to foodservice providers to incorporate more of these foods into their dishes before conscious consumers start asking for them.

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Adding variety to menus with a selection of the Future 50 Foods has health benefits for consumers and for the planet.

Are these foods suitable for South Africans?        

Some of the foods are already commonly used locally. Others, like prickly pears, are popular in regions. There is exciting potential to include more of these foods on fast food and restaurant menus.

Three of the country’s top Chefs from Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg share their favourite Future 50 Foods.

Spinach is highly nutritious, full of iron and does not use huge resources to prepare

Chef Duncan Barker, Wombles, Johannesburg 

  • Spinach is highly nutritious, full of iron and does not use huge resources to prepare. There is minimal waste with spinach and it can be easily grown in a sustainable manner. It’s also easily available from local small scale farmers.
  • Kale is high in fibre, very nutritious and popular with guests. It is a high-yielding plant with low impact on the environment and is versatile in many of our good looking new dishes.
  • We love using sprouts as there is no preparation required – they arrive ready for consumption, which means there is absolutely no wastage. It’s also a great source of protein as opposed to your traditional protein dishes.
Chef Graham Neilson, 9th Avenue Waterside, Durban

Chef Graham Neilson, 9th Avenue Waterside, Durban

  • Cowpeas – also known as black eye beans – are something I’ve used for years as they are a regular in our local spice shops. We cook and marinade them and serve them warm in salads or in our fish sets. 
  • I also get excited about flax seeds – they have loads of health benefits and have a delicious nutty taste when toasted. They are great sprinkled over salads or with cheese. You can even grind them up and use a little like you would nuts. 
  • Pak choi is a nice bitter leaf and is lovely in Asian cooking. You can toss it in stir-fries or use it in Thai rice and curry dishes.
Chef Ryan Cole, Salsify, Cape Town

Chef Ryan Cole, Salsify, Cape Town

What foods are on the list and how were they selected?

The 50 foods extend across the following categories:

  • Beans and pulses
  • Cereals and grains
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Leafy greens
  • Algae
  • Cacti
  • Mushrooms
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Root vegetables
  • Sprouts
  • Tubers

The top 50 were selected based on their nutritional value, relative environmental impact, flavour, accessibility, acceptability and affordability.

Beans and pulses

A rigorous five-step process was followed to narrow the list down:

Focus on plant-based foods

1. Focus on plant-based foods 

This was the first step because plant-based foods are nutrient dense and affordable, whilst having a lower impact on the environment than animal-based foods. 

Optimise nutrient intensity

2. Optimise nutrient intensity 

The Nutrient Rich Foods (NRF) Index 15.3 was used to assess the nutritional value of the candidate foods based on their nutrient to energy (calorie) ratios. This nutrient density calculation is based on the content of fifteen nutrients to encourage (protein, fibre, polyunsaturated fat, calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, vitamins A, C, D, E, B1, B2, B12, and folate) and three nutrients to limit (saturated fat, sodium, added sugar). 

Evaluation environmental impact

3. Evaluation environmental impact: climate change and land use

The list of 170 foods in the selected food groups (steps one and two) were then assessed for their environmental impact. The impacts included were greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change, and land use. 

Consider culture and flavour

4. Consider culture and flavour 

A list of 168 foods previously assessed for nutritional value and environmental impact were qualitatively analysed for taste, ability to add variety to recipes, availability, and affordability. This was assessed by Knorr Professional cross-functional teams of marketers, nutritionists, Chefs, and product developers spanning across Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe and Australia.

Deliver diversity

5. Deliver diversity 

The final step in the methodology was to ensure the foods were distributed evenly across food groups, colours, production countries, and level of familiarity. The list was consolidated to 50 foods. The aim was to have the collective list contain a sufficient number of foods in each group to shift consumers towards a more diverse mix of vegetables and plant-based sources of protein, and a larger selection of grains and cereals.

Final Thoughts

The current food system is unsustainable and unhealthy. In the immediate term, human health is suffering and, in the longer term, the physical environment is being depleted and polluted. Change on a large scale is required to re-configure the world’s food system. There is increasing consumer awareness and pressure to affect this change which is filtering down to food service providers.