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Blog 9: How will Covid-19 change our relationship with food?

In blog 9 of our blog series on opportunities for building back better food systems and nutrition, Dr. Angelika de Bree, Global Nutrition Director in Unilever's Wageningen Foods Innovation Centre, shares her hopes on how the current crisis will shape the way people, especially in higher income settings, will change their views about food. She hopes it will make us place a greater value on where and how food is produced; understand the value added of some shelf stable foods; and increasingly appreciate the social value of cooking and eating together.

– Lawrence Haddad

Nobody knows exactly how our society will come out of the COVID-19 crisis, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill: “the best way to predict the future, is to study history.” Agencies that have historical data, like Nielsen (1), forecast that people will look differently at health and that we will see permanent changes in the supply chain, the use of e-commerce, and hygiene practices. We shall see.

As a nutritionist, I am particularly interested to see how COVID-19 can help to establish long-lasting behavior changes in the way that people choose, prepare, and enjoy products they eat and drink. In my opinion, the ideal outcome would be a renewed focus on behaviors that are good for people’s health as well as for the health of the planet.

Building new habits is hard and takes time. Generally, it takes about 3 weeks to establish a new behavior (2). The COVID-19 crisis will for sure take longer than this, which increases the chance of turning a change into a habit. However, we also know that new forced behaviors only last when there is a clear benefit. A useful example is the outcome of a 2-day strike of the London tube. This forced people to experiment with routes that on the map – due to simplicity of the layout - were perceived as a longer travel route but were in fact quicker. Researchers were able to prove that this experiment brought lasting changes in behavior (3).

What are the three benefits that I wish that people will discover in the COVID-time?

 
1. Appreciation of the provenance and preciousness of foods

We live in a fully integrated world. Many people were probably not aware of this before COVID-19 and just took the advantages for granted like cheap travel and cheap products. Now it is harder to cross borders, which makes some produce unavailable. As a global business Unilever is immediately impacted when importing ingredients becomes difficult. While we want to deliver on claims like ‘made with Italian tomatoes’ we are faced with a reality where this may be difficult for a period of time.

Consumers will soon experience similar impacts in the supermarkets. After the shortage of flour, eggs, and toilet paper in Europe, real scarcity will occur for some fruits and vegetables. For example, due to the pandemic, it will be harder to hire the labour force needed to harvest perishable fruits like strawberries and cherries this year. The same goes for picking of asparagus and other crops for which mechanical harvesting is not available.

Hopefully, this crisis can result into an enduring appreciation of where our food is coming from, of seasonality and the labour that goes into harvesting it.  Perhaps this will result in wasting less food. Now, most food waste in the chain from farm to fork occurs at household level in high income countries (4). For example, in the UK up to 70% of food waste happens in consumers’ homes (5). Reducing food waste would be beneficial for the planet. At the moment, if “food waste” globally were a country, it would be the 3rd biggest greenhouse gas emitter, only behind China and USA (6).

 

2. Appreciation of the goodness of affordable shelf-stable products

People are stocking up on products with a long shelf life: packaged soups, seasonings, canned vegetables, pasteurized milk, etc. Some are unsure if these shelf-stable products are as good as fresh produce. The reason for this doubt is that these packaged foods and drinks are often lumped together with foods high in salt, sugar, and saturated fats under the denominator of ‘processed foods.’ I understand that gross simplifications, like with the tube maps, are sometimes needed. Yet classifying all processed foods as unhealthy may be too simple. For example, some processes like drying and pasteurization are used to make foods safe, affordable and available whole year-round.

The affordability element will become even more important as it is likely that COVID-19 will cause a global economic recession. This means that consumers all over the world will become more price sensitive. Nutrition experts like myself have a role to play in disseminating the message that some inexpensive shelf-stable products can be good elements of nutritious meals. For example, we have shown that the dried soups that many people nowadays have stocked in their pantry, have the same nutritional content as home-made soups (7).

I hope that people will continue to enjoy the goodness of shelf-stable products after COVID-19: not only are some nutritious and consistent with a tight budget, they also play a role in preventing food waste. If it weren’t for processing techniques like drying, canning, and freezing, a lot more produce would never even reach the supermarket.

 

 
3. Appreciation of cooking and eating together

People are looking for inspiration on what to eat. Restaurants are closed and ordering in might not fully deliver on that feeling of treating yourself to something special. Online recipe platforms have always been popular, but in these times, people are looking more for nutritious recipes with:

  • Expert tips and tricks from chefs to turn meals into delicious nutritious experiences
  • Inspiration that brings the food court experience into your home
  • Guidance to involve kids in the cooking process

Not only that, but we also see that people want to make the eating experience something special. This is important now as during the day our dining tables function as workstations and crafts space for kids. To make the transition from work to private, an atmosphere change can help tremendously.

I hope that being ‘forced’ to cook and eat together will bring about lifelong cooking skills. Potential side effect of adults and children getting their hands dirty in the kitchen, is that this will raise the conscious of what goes into a meal. Ultimately this could result in better dietary choices. Above all, I hope that people will permanently value connecting with their loved ones over a good meal.

The COVID health crisis is terrible. It’s bad for societies, for businesses, for individuals. The real tragedy would be if we come through this pandemic without changing anything for the better. In this blog I have highlighted some behaviour changes that I believe are linked to direct benefits and eventually become habits. We all have a role to play in reinforcing these habits: people, governments, civil society and businesses. We all have a stake in the outcome because habits that are good for the health of people are good for the health of the planet.

 

References
  1. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2020/key-consumer-behavior-thresholds-identified-as-the-coronavirus-outbreak-evolves/
  1. Five levers for change model. https://www.unilever.com/Images/slp_5-levers-for-change_tcm244-414399_en.pdf
  1. http://users.ox.ac.uk/~econ0360/FerdinandRauch/Tube.pdf
  1. https://visual.ly/community/Infographics/food/big-food-wasters
  1. Food Surplus and waste in the UK, WRAP 2020: https://wrap.org.uk/sites/files/wrap/Food_%20surplus_and_waste_in_the_U…
  1. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Food wastage footprint. Impacts on natural resources http://www.fao.org/3/i3347e/i3347e.pdf
  1. Leo van Buren et al. Nutritional Quality of Dry Vegetable Soups. Nutrients. 2019 Jun; 11(6): 1270.

 

About the author

Angelika de Bree is Global Nutrition Director in Unilever's Wageningen Foods Innovation Centre. She studied Human Nutrition at the Wageningen University and subsequently obtained her PhD in Medical Science at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. After doing Postdoc research in Paris at INRA/INSERM, Angelika started to work for Unilever in 2004. She occupied a broad spectrum of R&D roles, at various locations in Vlaardingen, Rotterdam, Heilbronn and Hamburg. Angelika lives in Rotterdam with her husband and 3 sons.

 

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