Comparing the potential social impacts of 3 nutritionally equivalent food plates

Catherine Benoit Norris, New Earth
Gregory Norris, New Earth andHarvard School of Public Health
Nicole Tichenor, Tufts University

Much have been said about the environmental impacts of different diets (eg. Marlow et al., 2009, Vermeulen et al., 2012). However, there is very little information available about the potential social impacts and benefits of different food choices. This knowledge gap could lead to the development of policies that would hinder social systems. In this study we will apply social life cycle assessment (UNEP-SETAC, 2009) to compare the potential social impacts of three nutritionally equivalent food plates based on a 2,000 kcal per day dietary pattern for an adult female as defined in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010.

The food plates selected for the assessment include a vegan, an omnivorous and a pescatarian option. The food plates food serving size and nutrient data were acquired from the National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 26. Food data were bulk downloaded from the NDSR with the following nutrient parameters by food: energy (kcal), protein, total lipids, carbohydrates, fiber, saturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, calcium, vitamin D, and sodium. Foods were then assigned categories based on the MyPlate graphic: protein, grains, fruits and vegetables.

The study is making use of the Social Hotspots Database, a system combining a global Input-Output model (derived from GTAP), a worker hours model and social risk data addressing 5 main impact categories: labor rights and decent work, human rights, health and safety, governance and local community. The total database contains data for 57 different sectors, in each of 113 different countries and regions.

Plate foods were categorized by the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP) commodity sector codes. A likely country of origin for each plate food item was assigned using USDA Economic Research Service U.S. food imports data and trade association data. Prices for minimally processed fruits and vegetables were estimated using the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service National Fruit and Vegetable Retail Report. All other food prices were estimated using commodities from Factual Incorporated global products database. These data include product weights, prices, and descriptions. Plate foods’ prices were adjusted for mass gain (e.g., hydration of rice) or loss (e.g., coring an apple) immediately prior to consumption.

The results obtained by the analysis might surprise and will certainly prompt discussion. As chefs and food planners are getting increasingly involved in Sustainability (for instance Menus of change) it is paramount to provide them with information that will allow to foster improvement both on life and social systems. This research represent a first step in this direction.


Marlow, H.J., Hayes W.K., Soret S., Carter R.L., Schwab E.R., Sabaté J. 2009. Diet and the environment: does what you eat matter? Am J Clin Nutr, vol. 89 no. 5, 1699S-1703S.

UNEP-SETAC, Benoit et Mazjin eds. 2009. Guidelines for Social Life Cycle Assessment of Products.

U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 2010.