The key to a long and healthy life is a balanced and healthy diet. Thanks to biomedical research – scientific research in the field of medicine – we are now well aware what a healthy diet needs to include as part of a healthy lifestyle. If every consumer followed the guidance of the Netherlands Nutrition Centre (Voedingscentrum), our society as a whole would reap the considerable health benefits. But unfortunately, that is not the case.
Poor cooperation between scientific disciplines
Why is this? One of the main reasons is that various scientific disciplines are not collaborating enough. Behaviour experts know everything about what motivates consumer behaviour: what social context people eat in and what in their environment persuades them to buy certain products. Having precisely the right knowledge is crucial, if you want healthy choices made by consumers to become the norm. In turn, behavioural interventions also lead to undesired social effects. It has been decades since nutrition experts first highlighted the dangers of saturated and trans fats in food. In the public awareness campaigns that followed, all fats were made taboo, for reasons of simplicity. But, as a result, carbohydrates and sugars became more widespread, meaning we are now saddled with an enormous obesity problem.
Consumers profit from researchers who collaborate
If we want to build a society where people live more healthily, live longer and rely less on care, then we as scientists need to get better at working together. That’s why we are working with Wageningen University & Research, together with other research institutes, on a common research infrastructure. Something that everyone can benefit from. Not least consumers, who provide information about their nutritional choices for research purposes and get tailored health advice in return.
Responding to consumer needs
The food industry gains from this, too. As ever, many products are now simply enriched with nutrients to comply with standards on healthy eating. However, healthy food is not just a bunch of nutrients. Rather, it’s a complex mix of physiological factors: for millions of years, our physiological system has been activated by smelling, tasting and chewing, and through various components interacting with each other in the body in different ways. If we can make this easier for the food industry, they can help make sure their products tie in better with consumers’ biological and sensory needs. And it means other consumer trends, such as the demand for local, sustainable, Fairtrade and animal-friendly food, could be tapped into much more effectively.
Closer collaboration between scientific disciplines leads to health benefits
Research infrastructure required for a healthy and sustainable society
Policymakers benefit too, of course. With a higher quantity and quality of data available, they are able to take
action more effectively in areas such as pricing policy, modifying nutrition guidelines and providing information,
when required. What’s more, they learn more about what interventions are useful, which ones are best ignored
and which ones reinforce each other. A harmonised European research infrastructure is required for a future-proof
European food system, and is a major step forward on the path to a healthy and sustainable society.
Pieter van ‘t Veer