Get to know more about food, nutrition and health
UNTANGLING COMPLEXITY – A SUMMER SCHOOL REPORT
Thinking and modelling systems-oriented solutions for sustainability – Stefano Guzzo Bonifacio, EIT Food RIS Fellow
During September, (12-16th), I attended a summer school, “Thinking and modelling systems-oriented solutions for sustainability”, organised by System Dynamics Italian Chapter with Fondazione Alessandro Volta (Villa del Grumello, Como – IT).
System Dynamics is a computer-based mathematical modelling approach for strategy development and better decision making in complex systems, developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, USA) Professor Jay W Forrester in the mid 1950s. (https://systemdynamics.org/what-is-system-dynamics/ ) Systems Dynamics provides tools and methods to analyse and solve problems arising in complex socio-economic systems (economic, social, managerial, political, public health or etc.). Unlike Systems Thinking, System Dynamics quantifies relations between variables to develop a view of the behaviour of the system over time through computer simulations. Lectures, however, focused on the qualitative approach of system dynamics.
By attending this course, I have learned more about how to apply this methodology in my MSc and EuroFIR’s activities. Also, I learned how to use Silico, Stella and Vensim software.
First example (below) was created to investigate the best policy for fishermen to ensure long term sustainable profit and maintain fish stocks.
This second model investigates hiring policies for a company to avoid major delays in product delivery when faced with inconstantly increases in orders.
The course also included lectures from Dennis Meadows, the Italian minister for infrastructures and sustainable mobility, Enrico Giovannini, and Professor and coordinator of the Italian network of universities for sustainable development, Patrizia Lombardi.
One particularly interesting topic was group model building, created to coordinate interdisciplinary groups into a better understanding of the effects of their decisions. This topic represents an effective way for managers, or indeed policymakers, to ensure decisions consider knowledge and expertise from other sources, leading to better decisions on how to tackle business or societal problems.
During the summer school, I had the chance to improve my professional network and met individuals from different backgrounds and work interests including Emiliano Carbone, a senior business designer for Tangity, part of NTT DATA Design Network. Emiliano has worked with many Italian and international companies to improve automation in their operations. His ideas might help EuroFIR to improve operations through AI and software automation and could be useful to develop future EC projects.
EuroFIR’s European Commission Public Consultations
Good news! The European Commission wants to know our opinion.
Through the initiative “Have your say”, the European Commission seeks the opinions of experts, those with lay knowledge, or an opinion about a range of topics. Their objective is to gather as much information as possible before formulating policy, which increases the likelihood of success. EuroFIR has many things to say about food, nutrition, and health, but we are also politically neutral. Therefore, over the last few months, we have taken advantage of this forum to express our views on labelling and the blue economy.
Our first adventure into this new communication channel was the European Commission public consultation on food information on alcoholic beverages, which is part of the Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan . Up to now, according to the Regulation 1168/2011, alcoholic beverages containing more than 1.2% by volume of alcohol, are not obligated to include a list of ingredients. The EC asked whether this was correct, or if this exception should be revoked and allow either certain indications off-label or require all indications on-label.
EuroFIR welcomes the commitment to accurate labelling, as we believe that consumers have the right to know what they are eating and drinking. High quality and trustful food information including nutritional values are cornerstones in supporting informed choice. Thus, EuroFIR believes that food information should be compulsory for all alcoholic beverages, irrespective of alcohol volume. Finally, based on widely recognised scientific evidence on the harmful effects of excess alcohol consumption, EuroFIR supports exploration of the relevance and need for health warnings about alcohol consumption on the labels of alcoholic beverages.
Regarding blue economy, according to latest available data, in 2019 across Europe, 376 companies produced algae for human and animal consumption. In the EU, around 4000 people work in algae biomass production and even more in algae-related economic activities. While data on the European production of seaweeds is well-reported, information about European microalgae production is not comprehensive. There are regulatory, knowledge, and market gaps as well as an unfavourable business environment including social barriers, which contribute to the under-exploitation of EU algae and blue bioeconomy sectors.
Overall, EuroFIR welcomes increased sustainable production, safe consumption, and innovative use of algae and algae-based products. More specifically, that standardisation of algae product specifications as well as improved labelling (harmonisation) are both necessary to achieve sustainable production and to inform consumers. Of equally importance is closing of knowledge, research, and innovation gaps to support sustainable production and benefit consumers, protect the environment, and boost European commercial sector competitiveness, as exemplified by SEAFOODTOMORROW outputs in the fish and seafood sector. Furthermore, based on widely recognised scientific evidence on the devastating and irreversible effects of unsustainable algae production, the EC should explore the relevance and need for algae information (e.g., searchable databases), as a control mechanism against bad practices, and to support FAIRification (findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable) of food, nutrition, and health data.
Are there any public consultations you would like us to participate in? Have a look! Or, have your say!
EU Chooses Safe Food
No matter what our food preferences are, one thing we have in common is that we all want our food to be safe. Talking about food safety, and the systems in place to achieve this, is important to reduce unfounded fears about food safety and help us to understand what we can do to contribute.
Across the EU, communication on food-related risks and appropriate responses is the task of European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). On World Food Safety Day (7 June 2021), EFSA launched ‘EU Choose Safe Food’ to raise awareness about food safety. EuroFIR supports any such efforts to provide information about the science that brings safe food to our tables.
When talking about food safety, it is essential to differentiate this term from food security, which is challenging because many EU languages use the same word for security and safety. Food security refers to enough food, whilst food safety ensures that food we eat does not have adverse effect on our health or cause illness, and spans across the whole food chain, from production, processing, packaging, through transport and selling, and, finally, purchase, preparation, and storage. Thus, food safety really is everyone’s business!
The supply of safe food has always been a challenge, but globalisation has raised the bar even higher. In the early 1990s, we saw a series of food safety crises hit EU (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy [BSE, or “mad cow disease”], salmonellosis, dioxin contamination). As it is in life, however, food crises are an opportunity for growth, and EU food safety system were improved, regaining consumer trust quickly following the establishment of an independent agency (European Food Safety Authority), which is responsible for assessing all potential food-related risks and providing independent scientific advice. EFSA was founded in 2002, and the same year Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 was published, establishing EFSA and adopting general principles and requirements of food law laying down procedures in matters of food safety,.
EU food safety systems are organised following clear functional and institutional separation of risk assessment and risk management. EFSA assesses food safety risks whilst others (i.e. European Commission, European Parliament, and EU Member States’ authorities) are responsible for risk management, on basis of EFSA’s scientific assessment and advice. This approach helps ensure impartiality and transparency of scientific advice as well as implementation of policy at national and EU levels.
Food safety systems include numerous scientists from different disciplines relevant to food safety: nutritionists,biologists, toxicologists, veterinarians, chemists, statisticians, etc. but also, lawyers, social and risk communication researchers, and enforcement officers working in the field. EuroFIR has contributed to food safety by harmonising food data composition, which forms the basis of many food-related risk assessments. Currently, EuroFIR is also proud to be part of a project updating EFSA’s RPC (Raw Primary Commodity) model, one of the tools used for assessing dietary exposure to chemicals, such as pesticides and feed additives, thereby helping to ensure the safety of food in the EU and, ultimately, protecting consumer health.
Making plant-based an everyday choice
As suggested by the name, a plant-based diet focuses on foods primarily from plants, which includes not only fruits and vegetables but also nuts, seeds, oils, grains and legumes. Whether a plant-based diet is healthier than one including meat is still under discussion. However, reducing consumption of red meat and eating a diet rich in plant-based foods are associated with health benefits; plant-based diets also have the potential to help combat global warming by reducing the consumption of precious resources including water.
Undoubtedly, plant-based diets are becoming more common. Countries where vegetarian and vegan diets were traditionally the norm still have the highest proportion of citizens consuming plant-based diets, e.g. India (around 38% of the total population), but these are increasing elsewhere too, e.g. Israel (13%), Taiwan (12%), Italy (10%) and Austria (9%).
The food and beverage industry are aware of this shift in consumer behaviour and adapting quickly to meet consumers’ demands. Moreover, a new type of consumer has emerged, one who cares as much about the impact of their food on the climate as about their health.
Industry response began with the explosion in veggie or plant-based (usually nut) ‘milk’, which resulted in new legislation to ensure consumers understood better what these are. Terms like ‘almond milk’ have been replaced by almond drink, but it is still possible to find products with meat and fish-like names, e.g. veggie burgers or sausages and vegan cheese. However, the flag of prohibition flies once again over the European Parliament, since these names have the potential to mislead consumers.
Irrespective of what they are called, some of these products are extremely successful. Oatly, the Swedish oat drink company is a hit with the market based on the campaign “It’s like milk but made for humans” and Beyond Meat, an American meat substitute company, aims to make consumers “swear its beef”, despite being made from pea protein. Although these products are becoming more popular and easier to find, they are still perceived as “only for vegetarians”. Thus, how might the industry make these plant-based meals an everyday choice for a wider range of people?
The food industry is pursuing two paths, namely health claims and mimicking meat. Whilst reducing consumption of red meat is associated with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer, for example, there is no evidence that meat-free alternatives (e.g. meat-free bacon) are healthier. Instead, efforts are directed at reformulation and associated claims, i.e. ‘Sugar-free’, ‘less than X% fat’.
Danisco Planit has carried out several studies exploring how they might make plant-based meals more acceptable to meat lovers. Following a sophisticated method that combines tools from sensory science, researchers evoked, measured, analysed, and interpreted responses to certain foods, taking into account sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. Among the factors analysed, two had key roles, specifically taste and texture. In general, the more a meat substitute tastes and has the mouthfeel of meat, the more likely meat-eaters are to buy it.
A study carried out by Mintel in the United Kingdom concluded that a quarter of adults who do not eat meat-free foods would be more likely to try them if they tasted like meat; 18% would be encouraged to eat them if the texture was the same as meat, whilst 14% stated that ‘bleeding’ veggie burgers were more appealing. Once again, the industry has acted on this valuable information and it is now common to see claims such as “crispy” on tofu or “juicy and tenders” on meat-free burgers.
Despite the discovery of new paths to attract consumers, key takeaways include:
- Factors such as health, climate and environment, and ethics (e.g. animal welfare) are driving consumers away from animal-based products, which means there is mass-market appeal for potential plant-based products
- The success of meat alternatives will come from meeting consumers expectations/ demands for ‘meatier’ flavour and texture profiles, which also creates opportunities for developing unique flavour personalities for plant-based products.
- Meat and dairy products are more available than plant-based products; retail needs to develop new formats and expand space for plant-based alternatives to attract new customers
Plant-based products are here to stay, and it is only a matter of time before they are as integrated as beef burgers, cows’ milk and fish fingers.
World Diabetes Day!
On this day, 129 years ago, Sir Frederick Grant Banting was born. He would later co-discover insulin with Charles Bent. In 1991, World Diabetes Day was created by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) and WHO. This year’s theme is The Nurse and Diabetes, but the aim remains the same- to raise awareness about the disease and those who live with it.
Diabetes is a chronic, metabolic disease characterised by elevated blood glucose (blood sugar) concentrations and, broadly, there are two different types of diabetes, type 1 and type 2. In type 1 diabetes, formerly known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Type 2 occurs when the body becomes resistant to insulin or does not produce enough of it.
In recent decades, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has increased dramatically. For people living with this disease, access to affordable treatment, including insulin, is essential, but a healthy diet is also important to control surges and dips in blood sugar. Untreated diabetes increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (such as stroke or heart attack) as well as blindness, kidney failure, and nerve damage. It is not known whether those living with diabetes are at greater risk of coronavirus infection, but it is known that those with diabetic comorbidities are usually more vulnerable to being unwell.
In the past, progression of type 2 diabetes was regarded as inevitable, but there is evidence that significant weight-loss through clinically supervised dietary interventions can halt or reverse this condition in some individuals. It is, therefore, essential that anyone living with diabetes follows a healthy diet and keeps an active lifestyle. Weight loss of 10% can improve significantly glucose control and triglycerides concentrations, as well as reducing blood pressure.
Nutrition has an important role in both the prevention and management of diabetes. It is essential that those diagnosed with diabetes work with healthcare professionals to manage their condition. Everyone should be treated as an individual, as diet needs to be aligned with lifestyle and medication, especially insulin. People with diabetes should eat regularly and control carbohydrate intake, whilst making sure they consume enough dietary fiber (> 25g/ day), limit intake of simple sugars (including added sugars) and prioritise consumption of products with a low glycaemic load. Alcohol is not generally recommended, as it can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Food for thought:
- 422 million people worldwide live with diabetes, which is 1 individual in 11.
- Diabetes was associated with 4.2 million premature deaths (under 75 years of age) in 2019; 1.6 million deaths can be attributed directly to diabetes, making it one of the leading causes of death, together with cancer and cardiovascular disease.
- 1 in 5 people living with diabetes (136 million) is aged 65 years or older
- Two-thirds of people with diabetes live in urban areas.
- More than three out of four people with diabetes live in low- and middle-income countries.
- Diabetes and comorbidities were responsible for at least €760 billion spent on health in 2019, which is ca. 10% of the total healthcare expenditure globally.
- Type 2 diabetes is largely preventable by maintaining normal body weight, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet. Smoking can be a potential risk factor for diabetes, which is why quitting can be considered a preventative measure.
- Healthy eating habits and physical activity have positive impacts on management of diabetes.
Food label information
In past decades the numbers of food stuffs available in supermarkets have increased considerably. Purchasing groceries is a common activity, and yet understanding exactly what we buy can sometimes be tricky and information on food labels can feel overwhelming. While it is not always easy, there are reliable sources that can provide you with key information.
In the European Union (EU), food label information is ruled primarily by two Regulations including the Food Information to Consumer Regulation (FIC) and Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (HCR). The former describes information that must (e.g. nutrient content, e.g. fat) or can (e.g. vitamins) be indicated on a product, while the latter addresses claims that can be made about a product, i.e “A good source of calcium. Calcium is essential for healthy teeth and bones”.
Essential (mandatory) information is:
- Name of the food
- Ingredients, from maximum to minimum quantity
- Allergens, i.e. gluten, eggs, soy, nuts, milk, and fish
- Date of minimum durability, “best before” (i.e. when a food is expected to retain the highest quality) or “use by” (i.e. when the food can be eaten safely)
- Nutrient content (per 100 g or 100 ml or portion), specifically energy values (in kcal), fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugar, protein, and salt; labels may also include fiber, starch, vitamins, and minerals.
Country of origin or place of provenance must be included for certain products (e.g. honey) and font size must not be less than 1.2 mm. Protected designation of origin (PDO), protected geographical indication (PGI) and traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG) must only be used on products that are as described, rather than “in the style of”, e.g. “Greek yogurt” versus “Greek style yogurt”. Additional information may be added, provided products meet the requisite criteria and descriptions do not mislead consumers. The most common ones include “gluten-free” and “suitable for vegans/ vegetarians”, or origins of the products, e.g. “cheese from Italy” or methods of production, e.g. “following the original Dutch recipe”.
National governments can also introduce further regulation. In United Kingdom, for instance, the so-called “Natasha’s Law” will come into force next October 2021. By the new piece of legislation, any business based in the country shall clearly label all foods packed and produced on their premises, specifying both ingredients and allergens. The legislative initiative was motivated by Natasha Ednan-Laperouse death, who suffered a fatal allergic reaction in a plane after eating sesame seeds contained in a baguette with no allergen information at Heathrow Airport.
Front-of-pack descriptions summarise the detailed information provided elsewhere and aim to help consumer to make healthier choices quickly. They are usually colourful and very visible and, in France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands or Luxembourg, NutriScore also describes the nutritional quality from A to E, where A the healthiest and E the least healthy. In Sweden, Denmark and Lithuania, the keyhole logo is used, whilst the “little heart” logo is used in Slovenia, “healthy living” logo in Croatia, the “heart” symbol in Finland, and the traffic light system in the UK and Ireland; the NutrInform ‘battery’ will be implemented in Italy soon.
Other front-of-pack schemes, often industry-derived, also exist across the EU food sector, such as the healthy choice logo or reference intakes labels, which indicate amounts of energy, fat, sugar, salt, etc. as a percentage of maximum intakes for an adult. However, these can be misleading, because percentages are calculated based on 2000 kcal/ day diet, irrespective of sex or age, and expressed “per portion”, which might only be 25 g from a 100 g pack. Also, percentages are a maximum, which we do not need to achieve …
Food labelling systems, however, remain in the spotlight and are likely to be modified again within Farm-to-Fork Strategy <https://ec.europa.eu/food/farm2fork_en>. A compulsory scheme for front-of-pack might be implemented, based on NutriScore, with additional information about environmental impact. With this regard, the European Commission is developing an impact assessment to study the adoption of a harmonised wide European environmental label which indicates elements such as the ecological footprint, the gas emission or the environmental impact of food long distance travel.
EuroFIR supports fully the wider aim to legislate for legal, honest, accurate, and understandable labeling of food products. We want comprehensive food labelling scheme(s) that are scientifically rigorous and consumer friendly. We also encourage consumers to spend some time reading and understanding food labels to help them make food choices.
Understanding what we eat and how it impacts our health is the first step in making healthier eating habits and knowing exactly what you are eating, e.g. fruit yogurts do not always contain fruit, sometimes just fruit flavours, and “natural” almond drink might contain added sugar.
If after reading the labels you still have doubts, buy vegetables and fruit; these foods do not mislead, but skip the plastic wraps if you also want to do help protect the environment.