This is a glossary of key terms and concepts that you are likely to encounter while learning and talking about sustainable food systems. We have drawn them primarily from references in our Existing Resources Database, and have given credit to those even when they are not the primary reference. If you are using this for academic purposes, please go to the credited document to find any primary references.


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We recognize our audience is a combination of all protected terms and therefore are using the title Dietitian-Nutritionist as per ICDA’s definition: “A Dietitian-Nutritionist is a professional who applies the science of food and nutrition to promote health, prevent and treat disease to optimise the health of individuals, groups, communities and populations.” – ICDA, 2014

Ecosystem Services

Ecosystem services are the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) classifies these services into four categories: i) provisioning services (e.g., food, fresh water, medicine); ii) regulating services (e.g., climate regulation, water purification, carbon sequestration and storage, pollination); iii) habitat services (i.e. habitat for species and maintenance of genetic diversity; iv) cultural services (e.g., spiritual experience, recreation and physical health, tourism, aesthetic values). — Dietitians of Canada, 2020


This refers to the eating of insects for food, derived from the Greek éntomon, “insect”, and phagein, “to eat”. This can include eating insects in their whole form or processed as a protein source. — BDA, 2018


Eutrophication is the term used to describe the biological effects of an increase in concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus and other nutrients on aquatic ecosystems; it is characterized by excessive plant and algal growth and death of animal life from lack of oxygen. Our food systems contribute to this through different mechanisms, including fertilizer runoff, manure losses and food waste. — Dietitians of Canada, 2020

Fair Trade

According to Fairtrade International, “fairtrade changes the way trade works through better prices, decent working conditions and a fairer deal for farmers and workers in developing countries” than those supported by ‘free trade’. “Fairtrade’s approach enables farmers and workers to have more control over their lives and decide how to invest in their future.” There are several national and international level fair-trade organizations with their own standards for certification processes including Fair Trade International, European Fair Trade Association, Fair for Life, Naturland Fair, Fair Trade Canada, Fair Trade US, and more.

“SPP, Small Producer’s Symbol, is an intercontinental network of ecological small-producer organizations. In partnership with committed companies and consumers and legitimized by independent certification, we fight for the recognition of our work and high-quality products, a dignified life, and a health planet for all.” In contrast with other fair-trade organizations that are consumer-driven, SPP is a 100% producer-driven initiative created by producer organizations.


Flexitarian refers to someone who chooses to eat “flexibly”, reducing their meat intake on some or even most days, but still consuming some animal products or meat on some occasions often for health and/ or sustainability reasons. — adapted from BDA, 2018

Food Losses and Waste

“Food loss refers to food that is intended for human consumption but, through poor functioning of the food production and supply system, is reduced in quantity or quality.” “Food waste refers to food for human consumption that is discarded (both edible and inedible parts) due to intentional behaviors. Food waste often refers to what occurs along the food chain from the retail store through to the point of intended consumption (p.2).” — Dietitians of Canada, 2020

Food Systems

Food systems are complex, non-linear, systems that “… that embrace all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructure, institutions, markets and trade) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution and marketing, preparation and consumption of food and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes.” — Dietitians of Canada, 2020

Food and Nutrition Security

“Food and nutrition security exists when all people at all times have physical, social and economic access to food, which is safe and consumed in sufficient quantity and quality to meet their dietary needs and food preferences, and is supported by an environment of adequate sanitation, health services and care, allowing for a healthy and active life.” This concept aligns closely with, but is different than, definitions of Sustainable Food Systems and Diets. Dietitians of Canada (35,44) cautions against conflation of Food and Nutrition Security (FNS) with Household Food Insecurity (HFI), which is a distinct term to describe when a household does not have enough money to buy food. Food security more commonly focuses on population level food access, food insecurity  generally focuses on household level financial inadequacy, and Dietitians of Canada cautions that confusion between the terms could impact framing of the problem and related policy responses. Both FNS and HFI have important relationships with SFS/D but are beyond the scope of this paper. Critical intersections are highlighted, with references to more specific information. — Dietitians of Canada, 2020

Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGe)

Climate change is caused [in large part] by the increase in concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These increases are primarily due to human activities such as the use of fossil fuels or agriculture…. Anthropogenic (human-made) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions… include emissions for 7 greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, perfluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons and nitrogen trifluoride).” — Dietitians of Canada, 2020

Healthy Diets

Adequate and healthy diet is a basic human right. This right implies ensuring permanent and regular access, in a socially fair manner, to food and ways of eating that satisfy the social and biological requirements of everybody. It also takes into account special dietary needs, and the needs to be culturally appropriate, and allow for differences in gender, race, and ethnicity. Adequate and healthy diet should be accessible both physically and financially, and harmonious in quantity and quality, meeting the needs of variety, balance, moderation, and pleasure. Furthermore, it should derive from sustainable practices of production and distribution. — Ministry of Health of Brazil, 2014, pg. 8

Highly Processed Foods

A term used in this report, and by Health Canada to describe processed or prepared foods and beverages that contribute to excess sodium, free sugars, or saturated fat, including foods such as processed meat, deep-fried foods, sugary breakfast cereals, biscuits and cake, confectioneries, sugary drinks, and many ready-to-heat packaged dishes (39). The term “Ultra Processed Foods” is similarly used by the FAO and WHO; these foods are generally made to be convenient, attractive (hyperpalatable), highly profitable (using cheap ingredients), and to displace other food groups; they are also marketed intensively.  A Canadian study found that Ultra Processed Foods make up almost half of Canadians’ daily energy intake across all socio-economic groups, and almost 60% of energy intake among children aged 9 and over, and that the more ultra-processed foods are contained in diets, the poorer the overall nutritional quality. This shift in consumption patterns has been linked to the global rise in obesity rate. Most health professionals contend that they should be minimized or avoided in a healthy and sustainable diet. — Dietitians of Canada, 2020

There is not one clear definition of processed food. Processing can reference any kind change from its original form, such as cutting or mincing, or a particular type of preservation, such as canning or freezing. Some forms of processing can make very little difference to the nutritional content of a food, while others can fundamentally change the nutritional value, including by adding sugar, salt, fat or other additives. Some additives, such as vitamins and minerals, can have a positive impact (such as fortified flour used to produce bread).

Often, processing is described as a spectrum, with different levels of processing fitting into different categories. The NOVA classification from Monteiro and colleagues1 provides four broad groupings, with the advice to prioritise less processed foods and to avoid “Ultra-processed” foods (see table below). — BDA, 2018

This is only one possible means of defining processed foods and there are a number of alternatives. For much more on the issue of defining “Ultra-processed foods”, including some criticisms of this model, read the FRCN’s building block2 on this topic.

Group 1: Unprocessed or Minimally processed foods Unprocessed foods are edible parts of plants or of animals and also fungi, algae and water, after separation from nature. Minimally processed foods are natural foods altered by processes such as removal of inedible or unwanted parts, drying, crushing, filtering, boiling, pasteurisation, refrigeration, freezing or non-alcoholic fermentation. Fresh, frozen, dried or squeezed fruit and vegetables; grains such as rice, corn, wheat or oats; meat, fish, eggs, milk, plain yoghurt; nuts, legumes, mushrooms; herbs and spices; tea, coffee, drinking water.
Group 2: Processed culinary ingredients These are substances obtained directly from Group 1 foods or from nature by processes such as pressing, refining, grinding, milling, and spray drying. Group 2 items are rarely consumed in the absence of Group 1 foods. Salt, refined sugar, vegetable or plant oils, honey, maple syrup, butter, lard, vinegar.
Group 3: Processed Foods These are relatively simple products made by adding sugar, oil, salt or other Group 2 substances to Group 1 foods. Most processed foods have two or three ingredients. Processes include various preservation or cooking methods, and, in the case of breads and cheese, non-alcoholic fermentation Canned or bottled vegetables, fruits and legumes. Salted, cured or smoked meat, canned fish, cheeses and fresh made bread.
Group 4: Ultra- processed food and drink products These are industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients. Such ingredients often include those also used in processed foods, such as sugar, oils, fats, salt, anti-oxidants, stabilisers, and preservatives Carbonated drinks, confectionary, pre- packaged cakes, breads and biscuits, ice-cream, sausages etc. produced from “reconstituted” meat. Instant soups, slimming products etc.


Intensive Agriculture

Often used synonymously with the terms industrial agriculture and conventional farming, “intensive agriculture (IA) is generally used to denote farming systems that use modern technologies … to maximise yields relative to land use… IA is associated [in food crops] with high use of chemical fertilisers, agrochemicals, and irrigation.” In livestock production, it is associated with antibiotic use (for some animals), grain feeding and intensively concentrated animal housing. Regulations and standards vary by country, but as animal foods in the Canadian food system are also imported, these generalizations are relevant. — Dietitians of Canada, 2020

Lifecycle Assessment

The principle method used in assessing the impact of food and diets on the environment is the life cycle assessment (LCA). LCA is a standardized research method defined by the International Standards Organization (ISO): “LCA addresses the environmental aspects and potential environmental impacts (e.g., use of resources and the environmental consequences of releases) throughout a product’s life cycle from raw material acquisition through production, use, end-of-life treatment, recycling and final disposal (i.e. cradle-to-grave)”. — Dietitians of Canada, 2020


A pescatarian chooses to abstain from eating all meat other than fish. They will generally eat other animal products such as dairy and eggs. — BDA, 2018

Plant-Based Diets

Dietitians of Canada defines a plant-based diet as consisting mostly, or entirely, of foods derived from plants, including vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruits.  This definition is in line with the British Dietetic Association, who support that it can be a variation of a vegan or vegetarian diet, including flexitarians, who occasionally eat meat or poultry. It is different than definitions used in other health fields, for example where it has been used to mean a minimally processed and vegan diet. — Dietitians of Canada, 2020

This is a term that can have a number of different meanings, depending upon who you ask. It can, but does not necessarily, refer to a vegetarian or vegan diet. However, it is generally agreed that this means basing your meals around protein-containing plant foods to replace traditional sources of protein such as meat, poultry and fish. A plant-based diet may contain meat, fish and dairy, but in smaller quantities and from more sustainable sources – essentially, it’s about upping the balance of plant foods in the diet. — BDA, 2018

Processed Meat

Processed meat refers to any meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives, such as:

  • Sausage
  • Bacon
  • Ham
  • Deli or luncheon meats
  • Pates
  • Canned meat

It does not include meats that have undergone a simple mechanical process such as cutting, grinding or mincing. — BDA, 2018


“Pulses are the dried edible seeds of certain plants in the legume family” and include foods such as dried beans, dried peas, lentils and chickpeas. Pulses typically play an important role in traditional plant-based diets around the world due to the proliferation of legumes in diverse ecosystems. Their role as a plant-based protein with health and ecological benefits has long been recognized and celebrated in traditional diets and is being increasingly recognized by Western science. For example, the FAO declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses because “pulses are nutrient rich crops. They are an excellent source of plant-based protein and micronutrients and low in fat and high in dietary fiber. Eating pulses as part of a healthy diet can contribute to addressing the multiple facets of malnutrition, ranging from undernutrition and micronutrient deficiency to overweight and obesity. Furthermore, pulses, and legumes in general, play an equally important role in soil health maintenance and improvement…Additional benefits of pulses include helping to eradicate hunger, increase agricultural productivity, improve human health and reduce soil degradation, thus contributing to towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” —  Calles et al., 2019


Sustainability is conceptualized in many different ways that vary by discipline and culture. We provide here a few concepts that may help you.

Netukulimk is the Mi’kmaw (First Nations, Canada) concept for “the use of the natural bounty provided by the Creator for the self-support and well-being of the individual and the community at large.” In this case community refers to the interconnectedness of all things—land, animals, water, human beings, plants, customs, laws. For Mi’kmaw, this understanding comes out of wejisqalia’timk, which means literally “we sprouted from the earth” and this speaks to the generations and generations of Mi’kmaq who have lived in Mi’kma’ki. — Sable, T. & Francis, B., 2012, p. 17.

For a detailed understanding, see the Learning Module What are Sustainable Food Systems and Diets, which explores the question What is Sustainability?  According to the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, sustainability can be defined by adherence to 8 sustainability principles (three environmental and 5 social). They are:

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing

  1. … concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust. This means limited extraction and safeguarding so that concentrations of lithospheric substances do not increase systematically in the atmosphere, the oceans, the soil or other parts of nature; e.g., fossil carbon and metals;
  2. … concentrations of substances produced by society. This means conscious molecular design, limited production and safeguarding so that concentrations of societally produced molecules and nuclides do not increase systematically in the atmosphere, the oceans, the soil or other parts of nature; e.g., nitrogen oxides and chlorofluorocarbons;
  3. … degradation by physical means. This means that the area, thickness and quality of soils, the availability of fresh water, the biodiversity, and other aspects of biological productivity and resilience, are not systematically deteriorated by mismanagement, displacement or other forms of physical manipulation; e.g., over-harvesting of forests and over-fishing;

and people are not subject to structural obstacles to

  1. health. This means that people are not exposed to social conditions that systematically undermine their possibilities to avoid injury and illness; physically, mentally or emotionally; e.g., by dangerous working conditions or insufficient rest from work;
  2. influence. This means that people are not systematically hindered from participating in shaping the social systems they are part of; e.g., by suppression of free speech or neglect of opinions;
  3. competence. This means that people are not systematically hindered from learning and developing competence individually and together; e.g., by obstacles for education or insufficient possibilities for personal development;
  4. impartiality. This means that people are not systematically exposed to partial treatment; e.g., by discrimination or unfair selection to job positions;
  5. meaning-making. This means that people are not systematically hindered from creating individual meaning and co-creating common meaning; e.g., by suppression of cultural expression or obstacles to co-creation of purposeful conditions.

From a Strategic Sustainable Development perspective, a sustainable society does not contribute to  violation of the above principles. Within these parametres, myriad possibilities exist. — Broman and Robert, 2017

Sustainability means being capable of being maintained over the long term in order to meet the needs of the present without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. — American Dietetic Association, 2007

Sustainable Diets

Defining what is meant by a sustainable diet is difficult, and there is currently no consensus. Like Sustainability (above) and Sustainable Food systems (below), there are a number of helpful conceptualizations to consider. Taken together the below definitions give a good indication of what is meant by a sustainable diet.

The official definition of a sustainable diet from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations is: “Sustainable Diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.” It is interesting to note however, that within its definition, the nutritional adequacy of a diet for health is included. — FAO, 2010 

Dietitians of Canada recognizes that sustainable diets focus on the consumption component of the food system. They contribute to and are supported by food system sustainability and therefore SFS/D are inseparable. — Dietitians of Canada, 2020

Cautionary stories of the consequences of taking too much are ubiquitous in Native cultures. Collectively, the indigenous canon of principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable Harvest. They are rules of sorts that govern our taking, shape our relationships with the natural world, and rein in our tendency to consume—that the world might be as rich for the seventh generation as it is for our own. The details are highly specific to different cultures and ecosystems, but the fundamental principles are nearly universal among peoples who live close to the land.

The guidelines for the Honourable Harvest are not written down, or even consistently spoken of as a whole—they are reinforced in small acts of daily life. But if you were to list them, they might look something like this:

  • Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
  • Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
  • Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
  • Never take the first. Never take the last.
  • Take only what you need.
  • Take only that which is given.
  • Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
  • Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
  • Use it respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
  • Share.
  • Give thanks for what you have been given.
  • Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
  • Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever. — Kimmerer, 2013

The British Dietetic Association adopts Fischer and Garnett’s  definition: “low environmental impact diets consistent with good health”. The definition can easily be applied to current dietary recommendations.

  • Diversity – a wide variety of foods eaten.
  • Balance achieved between energy intake and energy needs.
  • Based around: minimally processed tubers and whole grains; legumes; fruits and vegetables.
  • Meat, if eaten, in moderate quantities – and all animal parts consumed.
  • Dairy products or alternatives (e.g. fortified milk substitutes and other foods rich in calcium and micronutrients) eaten in moderation.
  • Unsalted seeds and nuts.
  • Small quantities of fish and aquatic products sourced from certified fisheries.
  • Very limited consumption of foods high in fat, sugar or salt and low in micronutrients.
  • Oils and fats with a beneficial Omega 3:6 ratio such as rapeseed and olive oil.
  • Tap water in preference to other beverages – particularly soft drinks. — Carlos Fischer and Tara Garnett, BDA, 2018

See the Learning Module What are Sustainable Food Systems and Diets, which explores the question What are Sustainable Food Systems and Diets?

Sustainable Food Systems

From a Strategic Sustainable Development perspective (see above, Sustainability), a sustainable food system does not contribute to violation of the 8 Sustainability Principles. Within these parametres, myriad possibilities exist. — Broman & Robert, 2017

Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations High Level Task Force on Global Food and Nutrition Security define “a sustainable food system [a]s a food system that delivers food and nutrition security for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised.” —  FAO

Dietitians of Canada also recognizes the importance of a Food Justice perspective in achieving such “social bases”: “Food justice seeks to ensure that the benefits and risks of where, what and how food is grown, produced, transported, distributed, accessed and eaten are shared fairly. Food justice represents a transformation of the current food system, including but not limited to eliminating disparities and inequities…” and that “key to achieving food justice is to have communities who have experienced injustices empower themselves to participate in the political process.” —  Dietitians of Canada, 2020

See the Learning Module What are Sustainable Food Systems and Diets, which explores the question What are Sustainable Food Systems and Diets?

Systems Approaches

Food systems are complex systems (networks) of actors and factors (see above definition of food systems) that are embedded within broader socioecological systems. Within food systems, there are many relationships between the natural environment (i.e., water, soil, etc.) and human social environment (individuals, companies, governance, economics, etc.) that form an overall system which spans disciplines, sectors and scales. Actions by one actor can have myriad impacts across systems and scales. One way a systems perspective can be conceptualized is as nested interdependencies, with each subsequent system reliant on the previous. To illustrate, the economy is nested within (and is dependent on) human society; similarly, society is nested within the environment. Food systems are nested within and across all three systems and include a constellation of various sized actors and factors spanning those three systems.

Figure 1: A nested systems perspective of food systems

Considering nested interdependencies helps to clarify that if a system is degraded, it undermines the stability, or viability of another system dependent on it. For example, if we continue to systematically degrade our natural environment it will reach a point where it may not be able to support human social systems, as well as food systems. Applying a systems approach to decision making means recognizing the complex actors, factors, interactions and dependencies and using that information in daily decision making. Such decisions are often made in the absence of any ‘correct’ answer; rather, the decision maker must maximize benefit and minimize harm.  As conditions are constantly changing, an iterative and reflexive approach to such decision making is critical. — Dietitians of Canada, 2020

For a more detailed look at how systems approaches can be helpful to your work, check the related, free, online Sustainability Courses.


A vegan does not eat any animal products, including dairy, eggs and sometimes honey. —adapted from BDA, 2018


Vegetarian diets may follow several different but related trends. “A vegetarian does not eat any meat, including fish, but may eat some animal products such as dairy, eggs, or honey. Some vegetarians will abstain from eating some or all these products.” — BDA, 2018

Feedback? Questions? Ideas? Contact the ICDA SFS Coordinator: