Eating and drinking are not just biological needs – nowadays they are social statements. With every meal you consume you send a message: Do you care about animals? Are you exotic and curious in your choice of ingredients? Do you favour local products? But while food blogs, theme restaurants and sophisticated recipe books are booming, more and more people in Western countries are adopting attitudes of renouncement: no meat, no gluten, no lactose, no sugar. And this, in many cases, is based on trends and emotions rather than science.
For food researchers, on the other hand, the major question is how to adequately feed a world whose population will reach 10 billion by 2050 without depleting natural resources. To face this challenge, a good start is to question our nutritional habits – and then make choices based on fact rather than fiction.
It’s time to eat better
If 10 billion people are to be fed we need to drop fashionable, damaging diets that have no evidence base and get behind rational advances in food science. To do that we need to know what makes the irrational so attractive.
“You are what you eat” may not be a religious chant but, in the prosperous West, it may as well be – as food has become tantamount to a religion for many. Go to any supermarket or restaurant and you are as likely as not to hear somebody fussing over what they will or will not eat: they may be detoxers, vegans, dairy-avoiders, alkaline dieters, low-carbers, gluten-frees. Or an emerging, far more militant type: a “clean eater”, in which almost all modern processed foods and additives – even the healthy ones – are eliminated from their diet.
Such an interest in the ethical and nutritional background of people’s diets should be a good thing. And it would be if such diets had any scientific evidence base – but many don’t. The upshot of this is that, in a world in which 800 million people are undernourished, fussy, faddy eaters with full access to all the food they could want are, bizarrely, voluntarily under-nourishing themselves.
Don’t take my word for it. Take the gluten-free diet as an example of how a fad is working in practice. Check the shelves in any supermarket and a rash of gluten-free options will be readily apparent. But ditching foods containing gluten, a protein complex found in wheat, barley, rye and oats, is a medical measure advised only for people who suffer from coeliac disease, an auto-immune disorder of the gut lining. So the numbers of people on a gluten-free diet, and those diagnosed with coeliac disease, should be pretty similar.
In September, however, a team of gastroenterologists led by Hyunsoek Kim at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School revealed in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine that they are not – far from it. In figures from 2013 to 2014, they found that 0.58% of the US population were living with coeliac disease. But 1.69% of the population was adhering to a gluten-free diet. So almost three times as many people were avoiding gluten than medically required. “This seems to confirm that the rising popularity of gluten-free diets is not accounted for by any increase in clinically proven coeliac disease,” says Ian Johnson, a nutrition researcher at the Institute of Food Research in the UK. “The origins of the gluten-free movement remain mysterious, but at least it has led to a valuable increase in the range of gluten-free products for those who do need them.”
That last point speaks to the corporate world’s overt willingness to provide products that fuel a fad. “The food industry certainly caters to the latest trends, some of which are positive and some negative,” says Sophie Medlin, who teaches nutrition and dietetics at King’s College in London. “The booming market for gluten-free foods, as a result of gluten being demonised, has led to great improvements in gluten-free foods in terms of availability and palatability, which is really beneficial to coeliac-disease sufferers with a legitimate gluten intolerance. The same can be said of the milk industry and lactose intolerance.”
But there are two big negatives: ditching gluten when you do not need to deprives your body of key nutrients including calcium, iron, fibre and some B-group vitamins, according to the global weight loss organisation Weight Watchers. And the fad has impacted coeliac-disease sufferers, too, says Medlin, because their health problem is now being taken less seriously thanks to it being associated with a fad.
This is just one example of a single food fad at work, one driven by largely unqualified nutrition bloggers. “The internet has amplified the problem as it has given a platform to people who wouldn’t have been able to get a publication deal for a book, or be given a voice on television in the past,” says Medlin. “That in turn has opened up the market for nutritional supplements and diet pills with very convincing marketing campaigns that lead people to believe they have found a quick fix to their health problems.”
What is it about food fads that makes people want to believe in them?
They want to believe
So, just what is it about food fads that makes people want to believe them so much? Well, the notion that “we are what we eat” is deeply ingrained – and it’s not just an English-language phenomenon, either. The saying originated in France in 1826 as: “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”, which translates to “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” In German, in 1863, it was recorded as: “Der Mensch ist, was er ißt.” – or “Man is what he eats.” The English version did not appear in print until 1923. “Fad diets have been around a long time,” says Medlin. “The cabbage soup diet started in the 1960s, while the 1970s was all about diet pills. Then we had the Scarsdale diet in the ’80s, the Atkins in the ’90s and today we have fads like the paleo diet, clean eating, detoxing and the alkaline diet.”
Trying to convince anybody they are following an irrational, unproven diet is tough. As well as lecturing at King’s College, Medlin works as a community dietician. She finds people both hyper- defensive of their particular food fads and eager to “recruit” others to join them in their foodstuff fandom. Sound like any other walks of life? “I have heard people liken nutrition to religion and politics and I can see the similarities,” says Medlin. “I spend a lot of my time trying to explain that nutrition is science and not [religious or political] opinion.”
Found in grains such as wheat and rye, it plays an important role in causing dough to rise when making bread. Even though gluten-free diets are a hot trend, their benefits are based on little scientific evidence.
At the root of it all is the fact that we all eat and so we all have opinions about it and consider ourselves experts. The trouble is, the World Wide Web gives anyone with a hare-brained food theory an instant outlet for it – and social media channels like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat lend a super-quick way to advertise it to the gullible. “Often this
comes from a genuine desire to help. People think: I am thin so I can help you to be thin; I am full of energy so I can help you feel the same. But unfortunately, this saturates people with dietary advice that then leaves them sceptical about the credibility of scientifically valid advice,” says Medlin.
Measure it to manage it
Quantifying the societal damage is tough: you can’t easily measure mistruths per minute on foodie Youtube channels. But one organisation that has had a go at measuring the degree to which people are being misled by food claims is the European Food Safety Authority. In July 2016 a literature review in the journal Trends in Food Science & Technology, by Hans Verhagen and Henk van Loveren of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in Bilthoven, the Netherlands, revealed EFSA results of an analysis of foods labelled and advertised with various health claims. It found that only 250 products out of 3,000 – just 8.3% – performed as advertised, in for example providing the stated lower levels of calories, saturated fat, salt or sugar – or boosting vitamins and dietary fibre. “The large majority of health claims were not supported by scientific evidence,” the pair say.
“It is a fact: there are a lot of unscientific health and nutrition claims about food,” says Francesco Stellacci, head of the Integrative Food and Nutrition Centre (CNU) at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. “These claims come from consumers, from organisations, from the web and from food companies. The problem is there is no truly authoritative place that can counter such claims.” What is needed, he says, are more nutrition research centres worldwide that will allow a global consensus to be reached. Medlin thinks one focus should be on fighting online diet disinformation too: “There needs to be a regulatory body working to discredit the poor dietary messages that are being touted online. That said, we can’t even find a way to stop children watching porn online so it won’t be easy.”
Desperately seeking rationality
Pursuing irrational food fads – and the shameful waste of food in the West – cannot happily continue, however: a food crisis looms and only hard science can answer it. So people are going to have to learn to trust scientists. That crisis? By 2050, the UN estimates, the world population will have grown from today’s 7.5 billion to 10 billion, a potential calamity that needs to presage a sea change in attitudes to food. “We are at a crossroads. How are we going to feed that size of world population?” asks Stellacci. “And in a world where close to 800 million people are currently undernourished how can we still throw away enough food every year to feed 1.2 billion? That’s between 25% and 30% of total food production.”
To answer such questions he set up the CNU. Feeding the 10 billion is going to take some serious food science and technology, involving everything from new ways of farming – moving it into cities, for example, with vertical farms in skyscrapers – to creating artificial protein-engineered meat and milk, to new strains of crops. All will need rational consumers who are willing to stomach it, rather than faddishly refusing it.
Used as a source of protein for vegetarians, it is made by washing wheat flour dough until only the gluten is left. The gluten is then dried and ground into powder before being mixed with other ingredients.
The CNU encourages interdisciplinary research in fields from artificial intelligence to augmented reality to genetic sequencing of the bacteria that live in our stomach and bowels – the “gut microbiome”. These are fields, Stellacci says, which are now looking promising for improving nutrition. How so? Future augmented-reality glasses could allow people to glance at a meal and get an instant readout of the firm’s true – science-based – “healthiness”. Such technology has already been tested on diabetes patients, with glucose content flashed before their eyes on a Google Glass headset. And machine-learning algorithms designed to predict crop health from multispectral satellite imagery could aid farming, too, by helping predict agricultural output. Backing the “you are what you eat” notion strongly, says Stellacci, are the frequent research revelations on what the gut microbiome actually does. “There is a lot of research now showing that the bacteria that live in the gastrointestinal tract might be linked to conditions like depression, attention deficit and even Alzheimer’s.” He stresses that many studies are on animals and that human studies are needed – but his hunch is that food scientists will need a strong focus on the gut microbiome. “The European Commission should put a lot more money into this type of research, as it affects our future fundamentally,” he says.
This term, introduced in 1997 by American physician Steven Bratman, describes an obsession with eating healthy food. In extreme cases it can lead to malnutrition or social isolation and should be considered an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia.
Another aspect of that future is climate change. New strains of crops able to cope with drier soil and warmer weather may be needed – but Stellacci sees no pressing need to use genetically modified strains that will raise concerns amongst the food fad fraternity. Instead of GMOs he suggests using genetically selected organisms (GSOs) chosen through conventional crossbreeding but with a computational twist. By using big data analyses of the world’s existing, highly biodiverse crop variety genomes, he thinks it will be possible to breed plants with just the right climatic tolerances. The cattle industry’s high carbon, water, energy and land impact will also be challenged on sustainability by the development of plant-protein-based artificial meat: steaks and burgers fashioned from mass produced plant proteins. At the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, for instance, Harry Wichers and his colleagues are in the midst of a fascinating three-year programme to develop meat substitutes based on chickpea protein. In the US similar attempts at meat-free burgers and non-cow “cow’s milk” are ongoing. They are going the right way, says Stellacci: “We need a lot more research on how to grow alternative proteins for growing populations.” But, he adds, it might also be worth reducing how often we eat “meat” – even if it is from animal-free artificial protein. “Some projections say that if we just eat vegetable-based foods we might be okay for feeding 10 billion people. But which vegetables? How many will go to make artificial meat protein? “I don’t think anybody has the answer and we need to get working on that,” Stellacci says. Whatever happens, there’s one concept all the machine learning analyses and artificial food in the world won’t change: “In the end nutrition is everything. From the time you’re a child it determines your development. And what you eat and how active you are will determine your quality of life.”
By Paul Marks @
Dealing with a sea of plastic
Polymer packaging makes up most of the world’s marine debris. New biodegradable or edible containers could offer a better solution.
Dead albatrosses are strewn across the Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. What will remain after their bodies decompose? Some bones. A few feathers. And plastic. Sea birds such as the albatross often mistake bottle caps and other packaging for food; they ingest these bits of plastic and then gradually suffocate. A study published in 2015 by British and Australian biologists predicts that nearly all sea birds will be contaminated with plastic debris by 2050.
This new field studies why people react differently to nutrients based on their own genetic variations. The aim is to personalise food recommendations according to an individual’s genotype.
Meanwhile, plastic production is booming. The environmental research organisation Worldwatch Institute estimates that 299 million tonnes of plastic were manufactured in 2013. And about 40% of total plastic production goes to make packaging, according to industry organisation PlasticsEurope. Due to its very long shelf life, plastic – made from a base substance called polymer – is a preferred material in the food industry, where it is used in preserving and transporting food. But the overuse of plastic has its consequences. Immense islands of debris are floating in the North Pacific, covering an area of 3.4 million square kilometres – an area nearly 10 times the size of Germany. The UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the weight of plastic in the world’s oceans will surpass the weight of fish by 2050. “Single-use packaging is probably the largest category of marine litter, even though the exact amount of debris that goes into the oceans is not known,” says Peter Kershaw, author of the annual report from the United Nations Environment Programme on marine plastic debris.
Perfecting the package
To prevent waste and cut costs, many companies are looking for ways to streamline the packaging production process. Designers at IKEA use software that calculates the optimal size and shape for a package’s contents. That means that the Swedish home furnishings giant does not have to alter designs or abandon ideas that would otherwise be too costly to ship.
In partnership with the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), Tetra Pak uses X-rays to analyse packaging and recreate 3D images of its composition. “Using simulations, we get a better picture of how the material behaves,” says Carsten Gundlach, an engineer from the Department of Physics at DTU. “The goal is to make products with a better design that will therefore be more likely to sell in stores.” But the system won’t be completely operational until 2020.
A variety of solutions are available to limit the impact of these containers on the environment. One of them is to develop more eco-friendly packaging. The London-based start-up Skipping Rocks Lab is doing its part by focusing on plastic bottles, which take several hundreds of years to break down in nature. According to Petcore, a European organisation that represents the plastics recycling industry, only about 57% of plastic bottles were recycled in 2014. Skipping Rocks’ solution is to package water in an algae-based gel instead – an alternative packaging they claim is cheap, strong, hygienic, and can even be eaten. In 2015, the start-up received a grant from the European Union to implement its concept on a large scale.
Another option is biodegradable packaging. Since 1998, the German chemical company BASF has been developing plastic that can decompose in just a few weeks. The material is used to manufacture products like bags for organic waste and fast food and yoghurt containers. BASF says that its product works as well as conventional plastic. Horst-Christian Langowski, director of the Food Packaging Technology department at the Technical University of Munich, studies various bioplastics production methods. “There are many options,” he says. “But each use requires its own material.” For example, the mechanical properties of plastic are preferred over the advantage of biodegradability for vacuum-packaged meat. “For optimal preservation, the container should offer low water vapour permeability and high resistance to perforation.” Bioplastics are inappropriate in this case. Their permeability is too high and resistance to perforation too low. “However, they can be very useful for preserving fresh fruit and vegetables, which need high permeability to keep them from perishing,” Langowski says. “And their packaging doesn’t have to be very sturdy.”
Banning plastic bags
Political solutions are also emerging. In 2013, the European Union adopted a new law that set a target for reducing plastic bag consumption by 80% within 15 years. Some Member States have also taken their own measures. France recently banned single-use plastic bags to reduce what the French government estimates as five billion units in circulation per year. The plastics industry itself is also making efforts to reduce pollution; the Danish Plastics Federation, for example, is working with NGOs to reduce marine debris.
And plastic is not the only material used to package what we eat and drink. Some bottles are made of glass, which also has an environmental impact. One bottle of glass produces 345 grams of CO2, compared with 143 grams for a plastic bottle, according to Tetra Pak, a Swedish processing and packaging company. “There is no single solution,” says Langowski. “I’m sure that we can solve the problem, not by implementing a single measure or developing a new packaging material, but by combining initiatives.”
By Julien Calligaro @
Balancing pleasure and health
Our eating habits are often based on accepted wisdom that has no scientific basis. Researchers at three European institutions are now trying to sort the facts from the myths.
In Europe around 700 million mouths are fed every day, and those mouths are picky. Not only do we want safe, cheap and varied meals, but they have to be tasty and preferably quick to serve in our fast-paced world. Tasty food, however, is often fatty and sugary. This, coupled with evermore sedentary lifestyles, means that more than half of Europeans are overweight, and more than 20% are obese, according to the World Health Organization.
Weight management is all about balancing calories consumed with calories burned, and clearly many of us could exercise more to tip the scales in our favour. But concentrating on physical activity alone misses half the picture. Although many consumers now choose lean meat, vegetables and other foods high in dietary fibres to keep trim, a 2015 report by FoodDrinkEurope found that what we crave most from our food is pleasure, which is what drives the €2.8 billion spent annually on R&D in the European food sector.
So how can we reconcile the trend towards pleasurable foods with the need for healthy, nutritious diets? Do we simply make healthy foods more pleasurable, and pleasurable “naughty” treats more healthy? As with most things in life, the real solution to smart eating is more complicated, involving cutting-edge research from Europe’s top scientists.
The proof is in the milk
Take milk as an example. For decades governments worldwide have promoted its health benefits. Unless you were lactose intolerant, milk was good for you whatever your age, size, shape or background. But where was the evidence?
Including pomegranates or goji berries, they are naturally rich in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fibres). This category is not scientifically defined but more of a marketing concept.
Completed in 2012, NutriChip was a Swiss research project that sought to prove this fact once and for all. It was conducted by a multidisciplinary team led by Martin Gijs of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Agroscope, the Swiss centre for agricultural research.
Despite its simple aim, NutriChip was an ambitious project, requiring the researchers to grow a layer of cells on a membrane within a novel device. Mimicking the cell layer in the intestines through which food is transported into the bloodstream, NutriChip essentially created one of the world’s first “guts-on-a-chip”.
However, while technologically groundbreaking – inspiring others to aim for multiple organs on a chip, called “human-on-a-chip” – the results from the study did not match those on humans. Fascinatingly, Gijs and his team instead uncovered fundamental limitations in the organ-on-a-chip approach: “It’s a very vulnerable model that doesn’t have the regenerational capabilities of a true biological system, so if you’re too aggressive with these cells they will simply die, limiting their use.”
Far from downhearted, Gijs is now taking a different approach he believes holds more promise: “I’m now interested in using animals-on-a-chip,” he says. With the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, instead of working “with very simplified models”, Gijs has complete biological systems with intestines at his disposal. “We can culture them on a chip, give them different foods, drugs or chemical compounds and see how they react,” he says.
Even better, because C. elegans is transparent and many mutants and disease models exist in it, Gijs can study these creatures in vivo and watch, for example, how fluorescence develops in the organ of interest. Perhaps this animal-on-a-chip approach will even one day illuminate milk’s enigmatic beneficial effects.
Smart solutions for a better eating experience
Openfood.ch is a catalogue of 14,000 items from Swiss grocery shelves. Developed by EPFL, it allows consumers to scan products with their smartphones and obtain information on the ingredients, such as the amount of sugar and fat. The project hopes to create greater awareness of what people eat and drink.
FutureFood, a Dutch project, wants to commercialise an innovative way of preserving the freshness of dried foods like vegetables, herbs and fruit. Their pressurised CO2 not only dehydrates food, conserving quality and health benefits, but also uses less energy than other methods.
Koen Nickmans, a PhD candidate at Eindhoven University of Technology, and Marios Chryssolouris, a consultant at Ernst & Young, created Fresh Strips, a material label that changes colour to indicate whether foods or medical supplies have been exposed to excessively high temperatures and can still be consumed or used. They won the prestigious Merck Displaying Futures Award last September.
Chicken or beef tonight?
Another accepted truth is that chicken is healthier than beef. Not always, according to mouse model studies, which suggest that some mice gain more weight from chicken than from beef. In fact, similar investigations have been conducted showing that two people following the exact same diet can end up with wildly contrasting health outcomes. It all boils down to genes, with the rapidly evolving field of nutrigenomics offering unprecedented insights into how diets affect different people in different ways. At the forefront of this field is Peter Løngreen of the Centre for Biological Sequence Analysis at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).
“Over the past few years we’ve been working on analysing people’s genomes and making recommendations as to the types of foods they should eat according to their genetic makeup,” he explains.
With the benefit of Denmark’s life-science supercomputing facilities, the DTU team is moving into large-scale population sequencing, offering reference data to improve individual dietary advice.
The main roadblock to nutrigenomics and personalised diet innovation is politics. “Official nutrition advice has the tendency to treat everyone equally,” says Løngreen. “If you imagine, for example, that your genotype allows you to handle beef better than chicken, then it’s clear that official advice needs to be graduated and more granular depending on your pheno- and genotype, to provide much more dynamic recommendations on how and what to eat.”
An app a day keeps the doctor away Dietary advice is all well and good, of course, but it is useless if it fails to reach the people who most need it. “From a scientific perspective we know a lot about balanced diets and their effects on health, but in daily life it’s hard to follow recommendations,” says Christina Holzapfel, a nutritional scientist at the Technical University of Munich. “And it’s difficult to reach specific target groups, especially lower-income families.”
Holzapfel is leading two nutritional communication projects within the Enable cluster, which aims to develop new strategies that promote healthier food choices from birth to old age. In the first, her team is devising a digital learning game to improve knowledge and eating behaviour in adolescents and young adults. In the other, the team is creating a mobile application called APPetite to see if people’s eating habits improve if they publish and evaluate meals photos on a social network.
“Apps like APPetite cannot replace professional obesity therapy, but they do represent an additional tool to supervise weight management,” says Holzapfel. So far, clinical studies have produced only limited evidence on whether apps improve weight management, but APPetite and similar apps will hopefully fill the gap.
Much like the work of Gijs and Løngreen, Holzapfel’s studies show there is a lot still to learn about how best to eat smart – but also how European innovators are leading the way to healthier diets for generations to come.
By Benjamin Skuse @
Grandma’s mixer gets fancy
Cooking blenders are invading European kitchens, with the promise of healthy and fresh nutrition without time wasted on cutting and stirring.
They cook, mix, crush, cut and steam. Modern kitchen appliances seem to be the perfect tool for an urban population attracted to healthy food but always running short of time. These devices prepare dishes from beginning to end without human intervention: just insert the ingredients, press a few buttons and set the table.
Brands like Kitchen Aid, Kenwood and Vorwerk are creating more and more sophisticated machines for a growing market. Germany and France both show double-digit annual growth, and Germany’s Vorwerk achieved a turnover of almost €1 billion on Thermomixes in 2015. In Portugal, 40% of all households already own the machine despite its approximate €1,100 price tag.
“Basically, these devices still use the same technology as 30 years ago: an electric motor which drives a knife, a container and sometimes a heater”, says Christiane Böttcher-Tiedemann, an engineer at Stiftung Warentest, an independent German consumer organisation involved in product testing. “What’s new is the extension of applications. For example, the knife now has a blunt side that allows actions like kneading dough. Another improvement is the integration of smart elements.” The heater regulates temperature autonomously. Thermomix even includes a chip with recipes: just follow the instructions on the touchscreen.
Will these machines replace pots and pans someday? Böttcher-Tiedemann isn’t optimistic. “Most kitchen machines prepare only rather simple dishes, and the results aren’t always convincing. In one of our tests, we noted that vegetables were overcooked.” Another inconvenience is the noise: during certain processes, they reach the same decibel level as a jackhammer.
By Robert Gloy @