Episode 27: Part 2: Feeding our Planet Sustainably and Equitably


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:03

What is the food print? And how does our diet impact our planet? In this second part of a two-part episode, UCLA Public Health doctoral student Hannah Malan shares her current research involving sustainable diets and Impossible meat. Keep listening to learn about how we can feed our planet sustainably and equitably. And how UCLA students reacted to Impossible meat. And what does nudge theory have to do with it? Okay, so explain to me and the audience, your project, your PhD.


Dr. Hannah Malan  00:41

Sure. Okay, this is fun. So I guess I’ll go back a little bit and talk first about how I was even exposed to the topic I’m working on, which is thinking about our food print. So in 2016, for Food Day, when I was working with Semel Healthy Campus Initiative, again, this is you know, working, collaborating with folks who are already doing things and expanding that work. But Professor Amy Rowat, who co-leads the Eat Well pod and Professor Jenny Jay, were talking about this idea of a food print. And when I say that I’m referring to the carbon footprint of food, that’s how we’re using the term. And so the carbon footprint of food includes everything in the life cycle of producing that food. So this includes the growing, harvesting, processing, and distributing of food all around the world. And so each step involves using resources and emitting greenhouse gases. So the carbon footprint of food. People often think of transportation and packaging as a big part of it but a large share actually comes in changes in land use. So cutting down natural ecosystems, forests, which are natural carbon sinks, and replacing that with often livestock, which are producing large amounts of greenhouse gases. So cows, I think many of us know now, produce methane, mostly through their burps.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  00:48

And people think it’s the other end, right?


Dr. Hannah Malan  02:12

That, too, is part of it. Yeah, but…


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  02:15

The burps are more.


Dr. Hannah Malan  02:16

The burps are more. So the growing of the livestock, too, when they’re alive. But animal foods in general tend to have higher carbon footprints than plant-based foods, not just because of the emissions they produce by burping or other things, but also when you think about the feed efficiency conversion. So if you grow food and eat it directly, it’s a lot less resource intensive than growing food to feed animals. So that step in the process right there, compounds the environmental effects. The evidence demonstrates very clearly that plant-based foods have a much lower carbon footprint than animal based foods.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  02:56

Yeah, I mean, I was reminiscing with you earlier, about 12 bushels of grain is equivalent to one pound of red meat.


Dr. Hannah Malan  03:04



Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:04

I’m sure that equates, I learned that in college 40 years ago.


Dr. Hannah Malan  03:08

Right, and the data just keep getting more accurate and better. So if we think about moving a little bit down the food chain, a serving of beef has about five times the carbon footprint as the serving of chicken. But a serving of beef has 34 times the carbon footprint as a serving of beans or lentils.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:27

Geez, that’s incredible.


Dr. Hannah Malan  03:29

Yeah, it really makes you think.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  03:30

And also we know distribution is an issue, but just in terms of the impact on, the stress to the planet.


Dr. Hannah Malan  03:38

To the planet. Yeah, I mean, for me, learning about lifecycle analyses of food, and really quantifying environmental impacts this way has actually been really eye opening and empowering because it really reveals that you don’t have to participate in this elite food economy to make a difference. You don’t have to be shopping at Whole Foods and buying specialty green juices and you know, all organic and pasture-raised and all of that to make an impact. The data really demonstrate that the ingredients you choose matter more than the production techniques. So there are many other reasons to buy organic, buy local, to support your local economy and farmers, and support a food system or practices that you support. But if you think about it on the large scale and you really choose to shop and eat by the numbers, ingredients are the most important things you can do.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  04:38

You mean by ingredients, meaning choosing the red meat versus the chicken or the beans.


Dr. Hannah Malan  04:44

Exactly, so whether you’re eating at McDonald’s on campus or preparing your food at home, choosing a lower impact option like a fish fillet or a chicken over a beef, choosing to do a bean burrito with veggies rather than a beef burrito. That makes a huge impact and a greater impact than choosing organic or something like that. So a planetary health diet is quite accessible in that way.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  05:14

As a communicator, you know, educated by that wonderful institution, UC Santa Barbara, and your research in the focus groups of people wanting to see infographics, you developed something, right, that could help tell people this.


Dr. Hannah Malan  05:31

So another part of the qualitative research, an outcome of that was understanding how students learn. And we know at a place like UC Santa Barbara, too, but UCLA students have amazing access to academic courses. But two things that really emerged for me regarding food literacy were this experiential learning in the dining halls. So the food environment as a learning tool, and also using visuals, infographics, and really comparative information to help students understand the relative impacts of what they’re doing. So what we’re doing in my PhD work is informed by science that helps us understand how to capture people’s attention, how to translate information in a way that is intuitive and makes sense to people. So sort of two fields of research that I’ve been drawing upon are social marketing and nudge theory. So social marketing is really this theory of traditional marketing, but marketing socially beneficial behaviors and products, but connecting behaviors with desirable outcomes or things that people want. So if you think about Coca-Cola, they’re selling the idea of happiness or engagement. They’re not selling the idea of a product, maybe sometimes they are, but it’s more than that. So this exchange theory, which is often how we explain what’s happening, is we’re aligning a product or a behavior with an outcome that people want. So for my dissertation work, rather than discussing health or some other outcome like that, we’re really aligning the behavior change with fighting climate change. So we know that something that’s important to students, and this is important, I think, for public health practitioners to keep in mind is that not everybody makes decisions based on health. And I think when you work in public health for a while, you kind of forget that it’s not people’s priority. And so this culture of health becomes especially important, but also aligning healthy behaviors with outcomes that are aspirational, and are attractive to people. So for students, climate change is an issue that’s top of mind. It’s very timely, it’s important, feels good to participate in, not the changing of the climate but the mitigation of climate change. So we identified that as something to align our campaign with. At the same time using the principles, as I mentioned, from nudge theory, which is all about structuring choices in a way that makes the healthy choice the easy choice, or facilitates a socially desirable outcome. So this can be making a menu item stand out more on a menu, or using intuitive stoplight colors to help people understand the relative impacts of things rather than giving numbers. So we wouldn’t put calories on a menu because, and the evidence supports this too, people don’t really have a good sense of what that means. People aren’t paying attention to that type of thing. Only the nutrition elite, so folks who are highly educated and concerned about their weight, are likely to interpret those in a productive way. So it’s really thinking about how do we communicate ideas in a way that can capture people’s attention that can not require or put too much burden on them to process the message. So again, it’s making the healthy choice the easy choice. We’re exposed to so many messages and so much information. So thinking about how to present options or information in ways that that resonate, or that stick with people beyond that moment.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  09:16

And then also on our campus, we don’t want to put calories up because we don’t want to, you know, focus on weight or stigma.


Dr. Hannah Malan  09:23

Right, absolutely. Yeah, I think that’s a big one and something I feel strongly about in my work too, is that it’s not about weight. It’s not about appearance, it’s about eating in a way that fuels your body for health and well-being in the long term, and eating in a way that supports the planet, that is enjoyable for you, that makes you feel good about what you’re doing, that you can optimize your life as a student, all of those things.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  09:51

You have a great logo, what’s the logo that you used for your promotion?


Dr. Hannah Malan  09:54

So our slogan is “swap the meat, save the planet.” Yeah. So we’re really focusing on on the positive outcomes of behavior and not taking any options away. The project with Dining that I’m studying for my dissertation is introducing the new Impossible plant-based meat at one of their most popular to-go restaurants on the Hill. So the location was chosen based on its popularity with students. Students love this location and the quantity of meat that they sell. So they serve high amount of red meat, large quantities, I mean UCLA Dining does 6 million meals a year, and so this restaurant alone is doing hundreds of thousands of covers a year. And meat was the majority of entrees they were selling, with beef making up about 30% of the items, so it was a huge target and a really ambitious project to try to see what could we introduce to move the needle, as they like to say. So I think many folks have heard about Impossible meat but it’s a plant-based meat alternative. It’s scientifically engineered to taste like meat, to mimic the texture and some of those sensory qualities that people love about meat, the way it cooks and sizzles, it has heme iron in it which is intended to give it that meaty flavor, and it’s intended to be satisfying like meat. So in many ways to give people the experience of eating meat that we’ve come to know and love in American culture, so really a product that can help this shift towards lower meat diets. So in addition to introducing this product, we ran the social marketing campaign which was all framed around climate change, the “swap the meat, save the planet,” and some of these educational materials that are informed by the nudge techniques I mentioned, so providing students with intuitive stoplight-colored graphs that show the relative impacts of foods using icons.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:05

On health, or I mean rather, on planet health.


Dr. Hannah Malan  12:08

On carbon footprint, yeah. So everything was about climate change and the carbon footprint of different foods.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  12:15

And so tell us what you’re finding.


Dr. Hannah Malan  12:17

Sure, so this has been such an exciting project because it’s such a new area of research. And we keep hearing that these products are so popular and people love them and I really commend Impossible for their mission and to introduce a product that can compete with beef but the results are a little bit more nuanced than that. So the most surprising result that we saw was while animal based protein consumption did decrease, we also saw that Impossible cannibalized some of the other vegetarian options. So this is great for a company like Impossible, but we need to look a little bit more closely what that means for nutrition and health, and what that means for overall reductions in animal-based protein and carbon footprint. So unfortunately what it’s looking like at this point, just looking at comparisons from this fall to last fall, so this fall when we introduced the product compared to last fall, we saw that beef consumption only decreased about 2%. So it’s a small percentage but on scale it amounts to a large number of portions of beef so I’ll be crunching those numbers to calculate the carbon footprint savings. What surprised me and I think surprised the dining directors was that we saw more of a decrease in the medium-impact category foods, so poultry and cheese and pork, rather than in the highest-impact category which was beef. So while we did see increases overall in low carbon footprint items, which included Impossible, we didn’t see beef decrease as much as I had hoped. And then again, these shifts from folks who are choosing other vegetarian options to choosing Impossible, to me that’s an unintended consequence and something that we need to look at more closely and discuss.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  14:17

And see whether was that consistent or was it just one time. Did the vegetarians continue to go back to Impossible, or were they just trying it because it’s a novelty?


Dr. Hannah Malan  14:26

Well, this is looking at data from the entire quarter. And this is looking at proportions of meals sold over the entire quarter so I was anticipating that, that maybe in the first few weeks we saw a lot of students come over and try it and then it dropped off. But it looked like Impossible actually continued to gain popularity throughout the quarter, so part of what I’m thinking is that students who maybe weren’t eating at this restaurant before started coming there because we saw an increase in covers as well.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:02

Oh, you did.


Dr. Hannah Malan  15:02

So we have to look more closely at all the dynamics because there are more students living on the Hill this year than there were last year. And this is also a challenge of doing food environment research, is you have to think, did the clientele change? Or did the people who were eating here change their behavior? And that’s a really challenging question to understand. Because if we’re just having people come eat this food, who would have been eating vegetarian elsewhere, we’re not really having the intended impact. So folks who were eating beef are still eating beef, but other new people are coming to eat Impossible. We’re not really meeting the mission. But as I said, we did see decreases overall in animal-based protein, so about a 7% drop in animal-based protein sales, which at scale is huge.  That is huge.  That’s huge, yeah.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  15:55

And what you’ve taught me about vegetarianism is that the cheese is a big impact on the environment.


Dr. Hannah Malan  16:02

Yeah, sorry to be a Debbie Downer on this one to all the cheese lovers out here, including myself, but it’s one of the shocking things to see is, yeah, so cheese has a higher carbon footprint than chicken. But that’s looking at it by weight. So you wouldn’t usually eat a 4-ounce serving of cheese. We found that actually, on the Hill, quite a few items do, like quesadillas, personal pizzas. So those very cheesy items can have up to 4 ounces of cheese. But again, and I think this is important for us to think about in general and I really want to emphasize this message, is that eating a planetary health diet doesn’t mean you have to become vegan. It doesn’t mean that you have to cut out all the food you love. And I think this moderation is important and conscious awareness is important. And just simply by reducing the frequency and the quantity of high-impact foods really makes a difference and the data support that that’s a viable strategy for staying within our planetary boundaries as well.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:11

Yeah, I mean, I heard like if we all kicked out one serving a week, in the United States, of high-impact foods, which means red meat, like hamburgers and lamb, right? Just once a week, if you ate one less serving a week, we would meet the Paris agreement by 30%?


Dr. Hannah Malan  17:32

Yeah, we would get 30% of the way there. So just reducing one serving a week, that’s awesome.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  17:39

And the average consumption in the United States currently is six times a week. That’s what I’ve heard.


Dr. Hannah Malan  17:45

Yeah, yeah. So it’s about 2.7 ounces a day, which is a little less than a serving. So that makes sense. Yeah, and just when we’re talking about reducing, I think it’s important to remember when you’re creating your meal that most Americans are eating far more protein than we need to be eating. So when you’re creating a meal, of course, you want to get enough protein to meet your needs and to help you feel full. But that doesn’t need to be your main goal every time you’re creating a plate. Most foods have protein in them. So even a bowl of oatmeal is going to give you protein. And throughout the day, if you’re eating a lunch of vegetables and grains, that’s going to be satisfying to tie you over.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  18:29

So what I’m hearing you say, Hannah, is that we can reassure people that generally in the United States, our protein intake is actually well over the recommended daily recommendation. And that by having a planetary health diet, which would include no more than one serving, 4-ounces of a red meat, bovine meat, which is a cow meat or lamb meat, that you could spread over the week if you want, but no more than that a week. And then having protein in your diet every day is recommended. But it can come from plant-based proteins, like lentils, black beans, and that other animal-based proteins don’t have to be eaten every day to get your recommended daily amount of protein.


Dr. Hannah Malan  19:20

Right. And if you think about it on a population level, I mean, there are entire cultures of vegetarian eaters who consume no animal meat. And if we look at dietary patterns and health outcomes over time, vegetarians tend to do better than folks who eat a more Western diet. And pescatarian diet tends to be the most helpful for long-term health outcomes. Which is eating fish and plants. So small amounts of meat, in general we can say, and this is on a population level, it’s not to give individual advice about what to eat, but especially among Americans, we are eating too much protein. And so reducing protein overall, and eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains is a great way to improve your health and make a positive impact on the planet. I feel really, really optimistic for my generation. I mean, I think there’s so much more that we could be doing right now on a policy level. We have so many policy tools in our toolkit to be changing the incentives and the political will just doesn’t seem to be there. But I think it will be. I think our generation is really waking up to these issues. And that’s why I think communication is an important part of it at this point. Where we are in this transition is changing the culture around eating meat, and a university is a great place to start. So I feel really proud of UCLA for being at the forefront of that and for our Dining folks to be interested, as I said, in not only trying this but learning what happens when we do it too, being open and transparent with their data and sharing that with others. So I think this is how we all move forward, is trying new things, seeing what works. As I mentioned, I think Silicon Valley is amazing at coming up with quick solutions and being innovative and creating technologies that solve problems, but we do have to be honest about unintended consequences. And, you know, my dad used a phrase recently that really resonated with me, which is regretable substitution. And I’ve been thinking about that a lot with plant-based meat. And, you know, we don’t want to be creating new problems while we’re solving others.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  21:43

Right. I mean, there’s that real challenge that you discovered as you were doing your plan with the Impossible Burger’s health versus planet health, individual health versus planet.


Dr. Hannah Malan  21:57

Absolutely. So Impossible meat is an ultra-processed product. It’s high in sodium and saturated fat. It has heme iron, which has some questionable linkage to colon cancer, and which regular meat has as well. So yeah, it’s possible that heme iron is one of the mechanisms by which red meat is detrimental to health. So there are still many questions about why red meat is associated with increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, and colon cancer, as I mentioned. We know over long-term studies that we see those patterns. But yeah, with Impossible meat, it’s hard to know right now. Like when my friends ask me, well, is eating Impossible meat better than eating red meat? And I say for your health, we don’t know. For the planet, absolutely. And so it’s been really valuable for me to work with the dietician on campus as we’re rolling all of this out, and to also be transparent about that as well. So all the nutrition facts for UCLA’s recipes are available online for students to see. This product is not being promoted as a healthy option. And we still have more questions than answers about the health implications of eating products like this. So, one of my hopes is that this research encourages others to do more studies, controlled feeding studies, or more long-term studies about the implications of eating processed meat alternatives.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  23:34

Yeah. And one of the things that struck me when you described your study, that you said also is in the literature about how health messaging actually makes people find food not as tasty?


Dr. Hannah Malan  23:50

Yeah, so this is a really interesting field of research. Folks at Stanford and involved in the Menus of Change research group have have done quite a bit of work on this and I’m doing another experiment right now that’s finding similar results. But the way we describe food influences how people perceive it, how they anticipate their enjoyment of the food, whether they choose it, and how much they enjoy it. So it’s important and it’s looking like introducing the word “healthy” into the equation may reduce people’s enjoyment of the food and make them less likely to choose it. So health can have a negative connotation even though most people will tell you, eating healthy is important to me, I’m trying to eat healthfully. There are so many different priorities and values or so many different goals, I guess, we’re managing when we make a food choice, right? Especially for students. Is this gonna fill me up? Is going to get me through the next six hours of my day, or maybe the rest of the day if I can’t afford to eat another meal? Is this is going to be tasty? Is this going to nourish me and make me, you know, do well in class? Is this going to be something that is going to make me feel good? So we’re all doing, you know, every time we make food decisions, even though it’s a habitual behavior that we do multiple times a day, we’re managing these various goals. So health is one part of it, but can easily be trumped by other goals. We tend to prioritize short-term goals over long-term goals, right? So, often people will think of health as a sort of delayed goal or long-term goal, especially for young people. So emphasizing things like feeling good, or having a positive impact on something like the environment, which is quantifiable or immediate. Those things can be more impactful. So, yeah, I guess a message about messaging would be, don’t emphasize the healthiness of the food, emphasize other attractive attributes, which can include things like environmental benefit, which what I have seen does not detract from people’s enjoyment of food, and may actually bolster it.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  26:10

It was really interesting, because what you’re describing, the word health in general is so interpreted by the individual. And I’m thinking, you know, our transportation director, as you know, Rene Fortier has used what she refers to as the health message, but it’s not really the health message. She refers to the fact that she was able to reduce single-occupancy car driving to the campus, commuting, significantly by sending out the message that you’ll lose 10 pounds in a year if you switch to active transport. Now, she didn’t say you’d be healthier, she said you’d lose. There was like a direct impact, sort of similar to what you’re describing about the planet health. So you’re driving people to health, like being more alert, but you’re not saying you’re healthier, but you’re going to be more alert, which is healthier. Yeah. That’s the outcome of good health.


Dr. Hannah Malan  27:05

Right, absolutely. I think short-term benefits are really important to communicate. Aspirational desires are important to communicate. Quantifiable outcomes, like you mentioned, with the 10 pounds, or an environmental impact is quantifiable. So we’re able to show the reduction in carbon footprint in that swap, right, a reduced relative risk of X percent over 20 years, you know, of heart disease is really hard to communicate to someone.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:36

So abstract. Yeah.


Dr. Hannah Malan  27:36

So I think as communicators, we need to keep these things in mind and keep learning from the marketers who have been really good at selling stuff for a long time.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  27:47

That’s for sure. Well that’s what you’ve done. You’re merging public health with one of your advisors from the Anderson School of Business here at UCLA. So you’re combining the two sciences, really.


Dr. Hannah Malan  28:00

Right. And I love working with her, because we think about food in such a different way, we think about human behavior in such a different way. And I think she’s a good reality check for me, too, when I’m imagining that everyone’s going through their day, you know, making food decisions a certain way. So again, that’s a good example of food being this topic that is so interdisciplinary and brings people together.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  28:26

So you know, you started out this conversation describing how you really were raised defining your success by helping others. And so far already with your research with the focus groups you have by identifying a priority of our student body here at UCLA. And now we have a teaching kitchen. And that should make you feel good. It makes me feel good knowing that that happened. And I’m thinking that some of the pearls of of what an individual can do to help planet health and at the same time, your own personal health, were some of the following that I picked up from you, was 1) you don’t have to completely go vegetarian or vegan, you can just minimize your bovine meat-eating which would be red meat and lamb, I guess.


Dr. Hannah Malan  29:18

Yeah, ruminant meat. So, beef and lamb. And not only reducing that but really making an effort to replace that with nutritious whole foods. So plant-based proteins are a great way to do that, so lentils or black beans. Get creative with beans is an awesome way to do it. I mean, even doing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is a really inexpensive and great way to eat a low carbon footprint meal. Rice and beans with guacamole, getting creative with veggie tacos and beans or lentils.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  29:53

And your goal will be one a week of the red meat, if that.


Dr. Hannah Malan  30:00

If you can get to one serving a week of red meat, you are golden.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:04

That will help all of us.


Dr. Hannah Malan  30:05

That will help all of us. And really, you’ll participate in this transition, which is not just changing your own behavior. But we have to remember that in capitalism, when you buy something, you’re voting. So you’re voting with your fork, you’re signaling to food companies what you want. And that’s really, really powerful. You need to vote on Election Day, always. But you have a lot of power as a consumer. And I hope that’s something that students realize, that Dining responds to what they want and what they’re choosing. And this will continue throughout your life as a consumer.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  30:41

That’s very good advice for everyone. And one other piece, which you mentioned, the Menus for Change Research Collaborative that looked into, for instance, a burger being mixed with mushrooms. So perhaps even for those that really want to have two meals a week have some sort of burger-tasting meal, could just mix half their portion of burger one day with some mushroom and the other…?


Dr. Hannah Malan  31:09

I love this. You can, seriously, there are so many ways to do this. When I say eat it once a week, this is your 4-ounce portion that you get. So split that over four days and have a small amount mixed into a stir fry or, you know, blend the meat with something else. Yeah, find at UCLA, you can get the blended burger, which is beef blended with vegetables, to reduce the portion size. So we when we talk about how much you’re eating, it’s not only frequency, but it’s portion size. So, yeah, I think that’s another great way to think about it, is cutting your portion and having it twice a week instead of once.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:50

Right. And that’s sort of the flip.


Dr. Hannah Malan  31:53

That’s the protein flip. Yeah, use meat as a condiment and a flavoring agent.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  31:58

And we’re talking red meat, right? So people can still have their chicken and others. So practically speaking, 4 ounces of red meat a week is really what your aspirational goal should be if you want to really make a difference on Planet Earth and also for your own personal health.


Dr. Hannah Malan  32:19



Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:20

So, thank you so much. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we wrap this up?


Dr. Hannah Malan  32:26

No, I think just a thank you to you, Wendy, for being one of those mentors for me who made it possible to be here and for so many students you do that for, so.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  32:40

Well, having having students like you as part of the family is really, you know, speaking of defining your success by helping others, that’s, like, a really great way to live and I’m really glad that to see you move forward and I can’t wait to see what you do next. You’ve forever happily surprised me.


Dr. Hannah Malan  33:03

Thank you.


Dr.  Wendy Slusser  33:03

Thanks so much.  Thank you for tuning into UCLA Live Well. For more information about today’s episode and the resources mentioned, visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast. Today’s podcast was brought to you by the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA. To stay up to date with our episodes, subscribe to UCLA Live Well on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Get to know us a little better and follow us @healthyucla. If you think you know the perfect person for us to interview next, tweet your idea to us, please. Have a wonderful rest of your day and we hope you join us for our next episode as we explore new perspectives on health and well-being.

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