The food industry must change and come up with a more sustainable and healthier range. This is what keynote speaker Jaap Seidell argues for during his lecture on the second day of food technology. “We have renewed products for children, but they are all products that they really should not eat.”
“If we all want to live the way we do now, we need 3.5 planets,” Seidell says. “So we have to do something different. Food production and consumption is an important part of that. ” There is currently a lot of unhealthy food on the market. An unhealthy lifestyle leads to all kinds of health problems like obesity, cancer and depression. The costs associated with this, such as healthcare costs, are rising. The corona pandemic has exacerbated this problem. “But,” says Seidell, “we have never been better able to do anything about it.”
Our current food system is based on market principles. It is aimed at maximizing profits and dividends from agriculture and livestock. Effects on health, environment and animal welfare do not matter. The food industry in particular benefits from the sale of a lot of food. This means low prices, cheap ingredients, low nutritional values and products suitable for immediate consumption. The marketing focuses mainly on unhealthy products.
“How will we feed the world’s population when we are soon 10 billion,” Seidell asks. This requires a dietary adjustment. For the Netherlands, doubling the consumption of fruit and vegetables means more than halving the consumption of dairy products and meat. When Seidell started his work in 1976, 5-10 percent of the Dutch population met the guidelines for good nutrition. And now, in 2022, those percentages are the same. All information and various campaigns have not helped much, Seidell concludes.
Seidell has done a lot of research into children’s nutrition. They have to eat 250 grams of vegetables daily, but in practice it is about 70 grams. They usually only eat vegetables for dinner. There are currently unhealthy products on the market that contain ‘symbolic amounts of vegetables’. “This is not the way to increase vegetable consumption,” Seidell said.
Looking at the contents of packed lunches, most are filled with white bread topped with nutella or jam and a salty drink. Only 3 percent of food boxes contain vegetables. Seidell is in favor of school meals, as in other countries. In France, for example, children get a 3-course breakfast. These children already eat more fruits and vegetables for lunch than Dutch children eat during the day.
Developments in the food market
The food has never been so cheap. In the 19the century, an average family needed almost all income for basic necessities, in 1960 it was just over 30 percent and in 2018 it was still 8 percent. At the same time, figures from Statistics Netherlands show that unhealthy food has hardly become more expensive, while the price of fruit and vegetables has risen by about 30-40 percent.
In addition, consumers spend less and less time cooking. “We do one minute shorter every year,” Seidell says. According to him, no other population spends as little time on food – that is, cooking and consuming it – as the Dutch. For example, the breakfast break at school. Children get half an hour for this, of which they only spend 8 minutes on food. During that time, children can not eat an extensive vegetable meal.
Processed, unhealthy foods
In the Netherlands, people mainly eat very heavily processed food from the supermarket. 70 percent of supermarket deals fall into this category, and Seidell research shows that 80 percent of supermarket deals consist of unhealthy food. The hotel industry and catering paint the same picture.
In recent years, there has been a lot of product development, especially aimed at children. For example, breakfast items, desserts, drinks, bars. All marketed as ‘responsible’ snacks. “None of them meet the diet and dietary guidelines and fit into the parentheses of five,” Seidell says. “We’ve innovated in products for children, but they’re all products they really should not eat or drink.” Seidell wonders why there have not been healthy snacks on the market in all these years. Products that do not contain as many empty categories, sugars and sweeteners, but are rich in fiber, protein and other nutrients that children do not get enough of.
Seidell sees the same thing happen with plant products. Consumers should eat less meat and more vegetables. It is more sustainable and better for health. But most plant-based products are again “ultra-processed junk food. We make the same mistake with it as with unhealthy snacks.”
We know what healthy food is. Vegetables, fruits, nuts, olive oil, leafy vegetables and oily fish. But for many people, especially the low-income ones, this is not possible. It is unaffordable, people have too little time, too little knowledge or there is too little supply in the area. The offer often consists of ultra-processed unhealthy food. Seidell is still looking for the solution in food technology.
“Food technology is wonderful,” Seidell says. “It has led to less food waste, to more sustainable products, to more convenience food, to tasty food, microbiologically safe and so on.” But this has primarily led to a larger supply. In the 1970s, there were about 1,000 items in the supermarket. Now there are 30,000, of which 29,000 are ultra-processed unhealthy convenience products. And these products are always for sale.
The role of food technology
Banning heavily processed ready meals is not an option, according to Seidell. “We can not go back to the 50s.” But why does the food industry not make processed products that are not only easy, durable, tasty and not too expensive but also healthy. Why are all the beneficial nutrients, such as vitamins, fiber and protein, taken out and replaced by sugar, salt and flavors?
Seidell argues for a different food system. The current commercial food system must become healthier and more sustainable. The government must play a role in this and make the sale of healthy food more attractive. Stimulate the industry to think of healthy ready meals. Make the healthy and sustainable choice cheaper. And make unhealthy and unsustainable food more expensive.
The food system should no longer focus on short-term profit maximization. “In the short term, the food system should focus on healthy and affordable food for all with minimal impact on the environment and climate, diversity and animal welfare.” Food technology must provide the answer to this, and this government must encourage this. “We need an innovative food industry. And, of course, consumers who choose sustainability and health. ”