Tell us a little about yourself …
Maaike: I have a medical nutrition background, and for the last twenty years I have worked on innovation and translational science for the food industry. One of my focus areas has been to address undernutrition and narrow the nutrient deficiency gaps in vulnerable populations by working in partnerships with other companies, governments, and non-governmental partners. I am always striving to translate nutrition science into practical solutions that have a positive impact on our future.
Jacobine: I am educated as an industrial design engineer with experience in innovation, business development, nutrition and sustainability. I love to unpack challenges – no matter how complex – and design solutions that matter and drive system change where needed. I am determined to inspire and shift business operations in changing the world for the better.
What got you interested in nutrition?
Jacobine: I got really fascinated by the topic of nutrition when working with DSM nutrition scientists such as Maaike, learning about its essential role in good health for people and for the planet. In particular, I was pulled into sustainable innovations for ‘protein foods’, ranging from plant-based to animal sourced foods (ASF) to alternative proteins. This is such an interesting space to work in because proteins are an essential part of healthy diets, and there is still a lot we need to do to get nutritious and sustainably produced protein foods on our plate, in all parts of the world, now and in the future.
Maaike: I see that malnutrition, its visible and hidden forms, is a problem across societies no matter where people live or how old they are – and I wanted to be part of a proactive solution to these challenges. Our approach to primary healthcare is usually to try to solve problems with medicines but we often forget to do a nutrition check. However, many of the (sub)clinical problems we face like tiredness, anemia, suboptimal immunity, muscle/joint weakness can be prevented by addressing nutrient deficiencies, yet physicians are often not educated around nutrition. We now see increasing awareness among consumers about the link between nutrition and health, but there is still much to be done.
What do you work on, and how does it relate to public private engagement for nutrition?
Jacobine: I work with human and animal nutrition scientists, innovation and business colleagues, industry peers, and non-governmental groups to help shift food systems for better nutritional, environmental and livelihood outcomes. Part of my work is focused on scaling up nutritious and sustainable solutions to plant and animal proteins. For example, our work on feed ingredients can reduce dairy greenhouse gas emissions on the farm up to 20% and significantly reduce ammonia and phosphorous emissions. But also, I work on solutions to scale up plant-based foods, ensuring good nutrition, great taste and sustainable production. To make the most of this work requires public sector action; for example, governments can help to redirect subsidies to sustainable agriculture practices and request environmental impact and nutrition impact disclosure, making the sustainable and nutritious alternatives the most affordable, easy and obvious.
Maaike: I work closely with private and public sector partners to develop more nutritious and affordable products. For instance, DSM, together with the World Food Programme (WFP), has developed a micronutrient powder for home fortification and has developed rice that is fortified with essential vitamins and minerals. In working with WFP, we aim to ensure that nutritious foods are made widely available to general consumers and beneficiaries of Social Safety Nets. DSM leverages its technical, scientific and regulatory expertise in nutrition solutions while relying on WFP’s expertise in implementing nutrition-specific interventions with state-of-the-art nutrition products and tools, and increasing awareness of nutrition in nutrition-sensitive approaches. Another example is our partnership with Avril that enables the production of CanolaPRO®, a protein from canola, that supports our customers to provide consumers with a neutral taste, nutritionally complete quality protein for their plant-based alternatives. To ensure and communicate the high quality of the protein, I work closely with my R&D and business colleagues.
What is exciting about your work?
Jacobine: We live in unprecedented times, and everyone has a role to play. Governments are drawing up national action plans for food security to secure people’s well-being and planetary health. Companies are being called upon to help shift food systems by bringing more healthier foods, developing more sustainable food production, supporting farmers and reducing food loss and waste. Civil servants can use their public procurement and legislative framework to shift systems to more sustainable chains. Scientists can keep showing how and where food systems should be changed for the better. Citizens can demand clarity on environmental impact, nutritional profile, country of origin and the social conditions in production; these questions will help companies to shift to highest standards... There are already many technologies and practices out there, and we know what we need to do, it is just is a matter of taking action and scaling up. I hope this Super Year of food, 2021, will create strong coalitions that pursue the most promising interventions, such as sustainable animal proteins and scaling up fortified foods and staples.
Maaike: DSM has evolved over the years from a chemical company into a global company active in nutrition, health, and sustainable living; while its traditional name is Dutch States Mines, it has now a different meaning: Doing Something Meaningful. I’ve seen so many great nutrition innovations and initiatives over the years, it’s really inspiring. We’re still in our infancy, there is so much more we will be able to offer in the future when it comes to nutrition solutions, for people now and generations to come. Who would have thought some decades ago it would be possible to eat nutritious algae, proteins from waste streams, and dramatically improve the nutrition of white rice?
What is challenging about it?
Jacobine: Food system issues can be very complex. Unfortunately some solutions and narratives are oversimplified. For example, protein foods are often presented as a dichotomy, with players advocating for single-sided solutions that promote either a shift towards plant-based proteins or a shift towards sustainable animal proteins. We know from the 2030 projections from UN FAO, FABLE and others that all protein groups are projected to grow so we need to provide solutions for sustainable growth of proteins of all kinds. Sometimes it seems that the plant and animal-protein camps operate in separate ‘bubbles’. As flexitarianism is on the rise and most people continue consuming animal sourced foods (which are rich in proteins and many of the B-vitamins like vitamins B12, vitamin D and high bioavailable iron and zinc), it is key that we focus on the best possible levels of environmental sustainability and nutrition for all protein foods. COVID-19 has also shown us that human and animal nutrition are closely interlinked so we will need to train ourselves to be better at systems thinking.
Maaike: There are many practical, technical and regulatory challenges that are part of developing affordable and nutritious innovations, but communicating and appealing to customers about products is a different type of challenge. For example, no matter the nutritional value of a food or food product, if it doesn’t deliver on taste and texture, nobody will eat it. It can also be difficult for our customers to justify paying a higher price if the nutritional benefits are not clearly communicated. Nutrition scores like color coding systems are a good step to help raise awareness around reducing unwanted nutrients (e.g., unhealthy fats, salt, sugar). However, most of these systems do not consider positive nutrients (e.g., protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals). Therefore, we see food manufacturers focusing on these unwanted ingredients. Nutrition scores that would also include positive nutrition would create an incentive for food manufacturers to reformulate not only towards unwanted but also positive ingredients. The approach should also focus on the positive not only negative nutrition. Food manufacturers who address a “nutrient of public health concern”, who add bioavailable nutrients, who make plant-based alternatives nutritionally on par with their counterparts should be able to communicate these benefits on pack.
Who else is working on these issues?
Jacobine: Several groups are working on making protein foods nutritious, delicious and produced in line with the highest sustainability standards. For instance, WBCSD and FABLE have done a great job in laying out pathways for plant and animal sourced foods: If only 10% of all producers were to apply the latest technologies such as feed additives in dairy, meat, poultry and pork production and best practices, this could realise a reduction of no less than 30% in methane emissions. And farmers could sequester up to 3.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year (WBCSD, 2019).
What issue receives more attention?
Maaike: We see that authorities and organisations are increasingly facilitating innovation and enabling availability of nutritious, affordable and sustainable foods. While the current focus is predominantly on reducing salt, sugar and unhealthy fat, there are still big gains to be made in addressing the shortfall of nutrients that exist in many diets. Take for instance vitamin D deficiency; it is widespread, maybe much more so than people realise, and made worse with our indoor lifestyles and scarce sun exposure, yet there are only a few countries addressing this through fortification. The shift toward more plant-based diets is another example, and we should be careful about perpetuating the assumption that plant-based automatically equals healthy. Plant-based diets do promote healthy lipid profiles and other potential health benefits, however, the potential nutritional downsides are often overlooked (e.g. micronutrient deficiencies, high sodium content in some of the meat alternatives). On the other hand, animal-source foods are rich in certain essential micronutrients such as many of the B-vitamins, vitamin D, iodine, selenium, bioavailable iron and zinc, that are difficult to acquire from plants. Both of these conversations require more nuance – and diets need to be considered in more holistic, systemic terms.
What’s the latest news or a recent success?
Jacobine: I am very proud of DSM’s joint venture with Evonik that represents a truly impactful food system change that prevents 1.2 million metric tons of wild fish from being used as feed for farmed salmon. By producing omega-3 EPA and DHA from algae (instead of from wild fish such as anchovies), we are able to produce healthy fatty fish, rich in proteins and omega-3’s – but in a more environmentally responsible way.
Maaike: I am very proud of DSM's innovative technologies that unlock proteins from agro-industrial side streams for human consumption. For example, CanolaPRO® is DSM’s new plant protein isolate with a very high protein content that also contains all the essential amino acids. Another important breakthrough is the possibility to make rice more nutritious. White rice is a widely consumed staple, but it has little nutritional value as minerals and other nutrients are lost in the milling process. Fortified rice kernels are produced from broken rice flour and fortified with multiple micronutrients. By blending these fortified rice kernels into regular rice, the nutritional value of rice can be drastically improved in an affordable way and therefore has the potential to reach and benefit the nutrition of millions of vulnerable people worldwide. We’re also providing solutions for plant-based meat, fish and dairy alternatives. We know that analogs of meat, fish, and dairy have made great strides towards delivering comparable taste and texture, however nutritional value is still falling short. We have now developed an online nutrition guide for our customers that can help them bring the micronutrient profile of their plant-based products on par with meat or fish.
What’s do you think is next?
Jacobine: In the near future we will see many more food products coming from sustainable livestock, aquaculture and new types of plant protein foods. We will need to make sure they all will be of the highest nutritional standards and are produced sustainably: low-carbon, no-losses and protecting biodiversity. The European Commission will drive more transparency about environmental impact across the value chain. New eco-score labels are signposts of a new era of radical environmental impact transparency. Going forward it will be important to engage much more with farmers so they are better informed and well equipped to grow the foods in the best nutritious and sustainable way. Governments will realise they should redirect subsidies to those initiatives that are sustainable and contribute to preventative care. We will see a great number of new types of foods and beverages, including personalised foods, tailored to your personal needs, related to your gender, age, physical condition and activity level. We have not nearly seen the future yet!
Maaike: We see growing demand by consumers for plant-based foods. Whereas plant-based products already have an acceptable to excellent sensory profile, I believe the nutrition quality of these products is going to be the next to improve in the near future to meet the consumer demand. Consumers’ food purchases will increasingly depend on information they access through QR Codes that help them understand how nutritious, sustainable and socially responsible products are, and if they fit in their personal diet and criteria.
Has this work made you change your mind about anything, or has anything surprised you?
Jacobine: Many of us are trained in one or maybe two topics, which logically gives us a myopic view. This, however, is not enough to unpack the complex puzzle of food systems, and proteins in particular. Everything is connected: people and nature, gender and nutrition, culture and biodiversity, climate and equality. We can only design sustainable food systems when nutrition scientists, sustainability experts, economists, agriculture specialist sociologists, chefs, farmers all work closely together. We should meet each other more often, go beyond ‘dialogues’ and actually work together in projects. This is something I wish for universities, companies and civil society to start in the near future.
Maaike: Echoing Jacobine, we should work in collaboration across disciplines and across sectors. In single isolation we will not achieve success. Partnerships between the governmental, non-governmental, academic, and private sector is essential for the successful development and implementation of innovative solutions to address sustainable nutrition solutions. Public and private sectors can bring their complementary skills together to serve a common goal, which needs a lot of trust. The private sector has the knowhow and expertise but cannot act on their own and needs the expertise from the other partners.
If you had to have a slogan, or a strapline, for this work, what would it be?
Jacobine: All innovations spearheaded towards healthy diets for all, produced within planetary boundaries!
Maaike: Investing in nutrition is a highly cost-effective way to invest in futures.
What is your favourite food or meal to share with family or friends?
Jacobine: Indian dishes are among my favourites. Dals, rotis and curries of all kinds.
Maaike: Remarkable, those are also among my favourites, too! Asian style, stir fried, and preferably spicy but this can be adjusted for family and friends.
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