Applications of nutritional functional units in commodity-level life cycle assessment (LCA) of agri-food systems

Graham A. McAuliffe, Taro Takahashi, Michael R. F. Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)
136 Downloads (Pure)


Purpose: The nutritional quality of final products is attracting an increased level of attention within life cycle assessment (LCA) literature of agri-food systems. The majority of these studies, however, are based on comparisons at the dietary level and, therefore, are unable to offer immediate implications for farmers as to how best to produce food. This article evaluates recent literature examining the nutrition environment nexus at the commodity-level, with the aim to identify potential pathways towards sustainability analysis that can inform both consumers and producers.
Methods: A systematic search of literature was carried out to produce a shortlist of studies, and strict exclusion criteria were applied to them afterwards to eliminate irrelevant material. The studies thus selected were classified into one of three tiers based on the level of complexity with regards to their functional units: (1) based on single nutrients; (2) based on composite indicators derived from multiple nutrients, and; (3) based on commodity-level analysis in a dietary context.

Results and discussion: Sixteen papers were identified for inclusion in the review. All of them accounted for climate change either directly or indirectly, whilst only five addressed different impact categories at the same time. Nine studies estimated environmental impacts under functional units associated with nutrient density scores, and the others utilised alternative approaches to account for nutritional value such as linear programming and end-point modelling combined with epidemiological data. A recently developed method to calculate the marginal contribution of a commodity to the overall nutritional value of a specific diet was considered to be a successful first step in bridging the aforementioned knowledge gap.

Conclusions: The LCA community should continue the ongoing effort to link farm management decisions to diet-level environmental impacts through an enhanced focus on human nutrition across the entire value chain. Future research comparing environmental performances of multiple food groups or multiple production systems should acknowledge differences in nutritional composition and bioavailability between the final products and, ideally, the effects of these nutrients on overall dietary quality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)208-221
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
Early online date7 Sep 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2020


  • Agriculture
  • Climate change
  • Environment
  • Food production
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Literature review
  • Nutrient density score
  • Nutrition


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