Nutritionism in a food policy context: the case of animal protein

A - Papers appearing in refereed journals

Leroy, F., Beal, T., Gregorini, P., McAuliffe, G. and Van Vliet, S. 2022. Nutritionism in a food policy context: the case of animal protein. Animal Production Science. 62 (8), pp. 712-720.

AuthorsLeroy, F., Beal, T., Gregorini, P., McAuliffe, G. and Van Vliet, S.

Reductionist approaches to food focus on isolated nutritional criteria (e.g., calories or grams of protein provided by a given portion such as 100 g), thereby ignoring the broader physiological and societal benefits and trade-offs involved. Nutritional reductionism can lead to the inadvertent or, potentially, intentional labelling of foods as good or bad. Both can be considered worrisome. Amongst our present-day array of issues is the disproportionate stigmatisation of animal source foods, which are increasingly being blamed for causing damage to the environment and human health—irrespective of production demand and dietary contexts. The case for a protein transition further reinforces this trend, overemphasizing one particular nutritional constituent (even if an important one). In its strongest formulation, animal source foods (reduced to the notion of “animal protein”) are represented as an intrinsically harmful food category and, therefore, to be minimised or eliminated. Moreover, this creates a false sense that “proteins” are nutritionally interchangeable both in terms of protein quality and the expanded pools of nutrients they provide (e.g., micronutrients and bioactive compounds). We, therefore, caution against using the word “protein” in food policy-making to describe a heterogenous set of foods in the human diet. Rather, we suggest referring to said foods as “protein-rich foods”, while acknowledging the expanded pool of non-protein nutrients that they provide and their unique capabilities to support a much broader range of bodily functions. Several essential or otherwise beneficial nutrients are generally more bioavailable in animal source foods than in plant source foods or (nearly) exclusively available in animal source foods. A similar nutritional complementarity exists in reverse. Nutritional and environmental metrics should be carefully interpreted, as considerable complexity and contextuality is involved. This needs to be done, for instance, with respect to the biochemistry of food and in light of individual and genetically inherited human physiology. Also, the assessments of the environmental impact of various forms of agriculture need a fine-grained approach, especially when examining a product at the system-scale which receives additives (and produces additional pollutants) at numerous production stages. Harms and benefits are multiple, multi-dimensional, and thus difficult to measure based on the narrow sets of descriptive metrics that are often used in support of policy development (e.g., CO2-eq/kg or metabolic disease associations in Westernised diets). A more appropriate way forward would consist of combining and integrating the best of animal and plant solutions to reconnect with the concept of nourishing and wholesome diets that are rooted in undervalued benefits such as conviviality and shared traditions, thus steering away from a nutrient-centric dogma. Humans do not consume isolated nutrients, they consume foods, and they do so as part of culturally complex dietary patterns that - despite their complexity - need to be carefully considered in food policy making.

KeywordsMeat; Dairy; Eggs; Poultry; Vegan; Vegetarian ; Livestock; Plant-based
Year of Publication2022
JournalAnimal Production Science
Journal citation62 (8), pp. 712-720
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Web address (URL)
Open accessPublished as green open access
FunderBiotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
Funder project or codeS2N - Soil to Nutrition - Work package 2 (WP2) - Adaptive management systems for improved efficiency and nutritional quality
Publisher's version
Copyright license
Accepted author manuscript
Copyright license
Output statusPublished
Publication dates
Online21 Feb 2022
Publication process dates
Accepted10 Dec 2021
PublisherCSIRO Publishing

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