Popular Science: Sustainable Nutrition Scientific Board/3 – the first project enters its final phase

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Articolo pulished by Popular Science

The spread of non-contagious diseases, like obesity and diabetes, in a worrying upward trend. It has become clear the current international dietary guidelines are not producing the expected results from a nutritional point of view. This observation, along with the conviction that social and environmental externalities of food production are to be examined, has prompted the experts of the Sustainable Nutrition Scientific Board to promote a new scientific approach on sustainable nutrition, based on the adoption of an interdisciplinary research methodology that includes complex systems.

Saturated fats – should be update the guidelines?

Over the course of the Symposium organized by the SNSB on the occasion of the 2021 Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Professor Joanne Slavin, lecturer of Human Nutrition at University of Minnesota’s Food Science and Nutrition Department, has point out that nutrition science is traditionally based on research methods that isolate the effect of a single nutrient. Redirecting the focus from that to the whole food system is not easy, but in order to determine causal relations and draw reliable conclusions, it is fundamental to take into account the different chemical compositions of nutrients, how they interact with each other and within the a given eating pattern.

Professor Slavin further describes the case of saturated fats in the context of SNSB’s first year of activity. According to the expert, who has contributed to the creation of the 2010 dietary guidelines of the United States, international recommendations insist on the need to limit the consumption of saturated fats, although it has become evident that a more correct approach would be to consider the whole composition of macronutrients and the role of the food matrix. The latest scientific literature confirms that there is no solid proof that limiting saturated fats consumption to 10% of the total daily calorie intake prevents cardiovascular diseases or reduce mortality. Instead, dietary recommendations should focus on the choice of the kind of food. The results of the literature review were published on the European Journal of Internal Medicine (Sustainable and personalized nutrition: From earth health to public health, C. Agostoni, S. Boccia, S. Banni, P.M. Mannucci, A Astrup DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejim.2021.02.012).

The SNSB has taken a clear stand on the topic: the time has come to review international guidelines on saturated fats consumption. Of course, a distinction must be made between sustainable nutrition strategies and dietary interventions in secondary prevention programs. But overall, saturated fatty acids should be reconsidered as a widely accessible, source of energy that is environmentally friendly and adaptable to different lifestyles.

Correlation does not mean causation

Professor Yamir Moreno (University of Zaragoza), among the world’s leading experts in complex systems and biocomputing, explained in further detail the methodological aspects of SNSB’s research project, detailing how a holistic approach requires highly advanced mathematical models able to factor in many variables. Observational studies, which are often picked up by the media, do not always consider important confounding factors like geographical location, culture, genetics, individual responses and so on, thus risking to attributing a causal relation to two factors that does not actually exist. A simple observation and recording of dietary patterns is not sufficient, and correlation can only point to a link that isn’t necessarily causal.

Here lies the need to reconsider the way we gather and analyze data, and the way we interpret findings, which are at the basis of healthy and sustainable nutrition guidelines. Frontier research subjects, apparently unrelated to nutrition science, like complex systems, artificial intelligence and big data, can help to correctly interpret the available data.

Research progress on vegetable oils

The SNSB research project is composed of three phases: the first consists of the gathering and organization of data into a highly detailed database. The vast amount of data will then be analyzed to achieve an accurate description of the way chemical composition relates and influences the risk of developing non-transmissible diseases. The third and last phase, to be completed in 2022, will focus on the launch of a pilot project whose aim is to test the results gathered in the second phase and elaborate useful recommendations for nutritionally, environmentally and socio-economically sustainable policies.

Sustainable nutrition requires the abandonment of baseless dogmas and a personalized precision approach. Malnutrition, defined as both the lack and the excess of food, should be understood as a sustainability challenge other than one of inequality.

From the point of view of sustainability, palm oil seems to be a very efficient option. Today it is the world’s fourth largest source of calories and it accounts for 35% of all vegetable oils produced, while taking up only 10% of global oil crops. Once the environmental and social impacts of all vegetable oil crops will be mapped out, the SNSB will be able to perform an accurate evaluation, putting together all information and data gathered.

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