Novel and future foods could cut the environmental impact of current diets significantly

Diets with novel and future foods, as well as vegan diets with protein-rich plant-based alternatives, could have over 80% less environmental impact than the average current European omnivore diet. 

Novel and future foods, as nutritious alternatives to foods of animal origin, have the potential to reduce the environmental impacts of diets. At the same time, they meet multiple sustainability goals. 

Researchers at the University of Helsinki, Finland, used diet optimisation, a common method of modelling more sustainable diet options, to understand how such novel and future foods could play a role in future diets.  

"By minimising environmental impact in global warming potential, i.e., carbon emissions, water use, and land use, we found that diets with novel and future foods as well as vegan diets with protein-rich plant-based alternatives could have over 80% less environmental impact than the average current European omnivore diet,” says Doctoral Researcher Rachel Mazac from the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki.  

The optimisation selected such novel and future foods as cultured milk, microbial protein cultured from bacteria cells, insect meal, and kelp as animal-source food replacements. Yet, the most commonly selected protein sources to replace animal-source food in current diets were plant-based milk replacements, e.g., soy and almond milks, due to their low impact and nutrient profile fortified with calcium, vitamins B12/B6, and essential amino acids.  

Additionally, researchers found that even with an 80% reduction in animal-source food from current diets – so not completely removing all animal-source foods as in a strict vegan diet – all environmental impacts could be reduced by over 70%.  

The diet with the best compromise of low environmental impact while still meeting all nutritional requirements contained small amounts of animal-source foods (e.g., dairy and certain types of fish), with a few novel and future foods, mostly insect meal and cultured milk and more plant-based milks. 

“Though there are good prospects for such novel and future foods in diet models, there is a long way to go in terms of cultural acceptability, economic and price accessibility, and developing taste, texture, and flavour profiles for full adoption into diets on a large scale. By including novel and future foods in future diets, we might be able to meet the needs of more people with nutritious protein alternatives and fewer environmental impacts,” Mazac says. 



Rachel Mazac, Jelena Meinilä, Liisa Korkalo, Natasha Järviö, Mika Jalava and Hanna L. Tuomisto. Incorporation of novel foods in European diets can reduce global warming potential, water use and land use by over 80%Nature Food, V. 3, No. 4, 2022, pp. 286–93.

Novel foods, future foods? 

Recent advances in food production technologies have developed cell culturing methods to grow animal source foods as direct replacements for conventional livestock products, which have been shown to have greater climate impact. Additionally, fungus- and plant-based options for protein replacements have grown in popularity and production scale, with familiar options such as Beyond Meat and Quorn.  

Even non-traditional food items in ‘western’ diets, such as insects, kelp, and other seaweeds, are gaining interest as prospective foods to mitigate climate change through human diet shifts. 

Novel foods are those produced from new production technologies or fall under novel regulatory frameworks such as cell-culturing technologies – cultured meat, eggs, milk, plants, algae, bacteria, and fungi.  

Future foods are those for which our production capacity has the potential to scale up and/or increase in consumption due to emerging climate change mitigation concerns such as insects and spirulina; some foods may overlap in both novel/future categories, such as mussels (Mytilus spp.) or chlorella (Chlorella vulgaris) produced with novel technologies.