Sunday, 28 February 2010

Food in times of crisis

airdrop of humanitarian aid

Natural disasters do strike. And when they do, man-made infrastructures are not guaranteed to survive. While people can - in some cases - be protected by early warning systems and effective evacuation plans, it is the magnitude of disruption to utilities (water, electricity), transportation and communication infrastructure that will affect the final size of the disaster's cost (in lives and in money).

With two such cases very recent - the earthquakes in Haiti and in Chile - a number of questions come into my mind: how can one, effectively, get food and water to people in need? What kind of food? Should people rely on airdrops or should people/ local authorities maintain a small stockpile of supplies for such cases? One could argue that food (and water) are perishable goods, which makes keeping stocks a - possibly - expensive exercise. But, on the other side, the availability and quality of those elements are essential for the health, welfare and morale of people affected by the disaster.

Interestingly, there is an ongoing project on "Food For Crises: Developing an option for humanitarian aid"; the project is the objective of a joint thesis within the European Masters Degree in Food Studies. The students assigned to the project try to design food "products" suitable for distribution in such crises cases. They are taking into consideration nutritional value and health benefits, health risks (e.g. allergies) and labelling, cultural parameters (e.g., regarding the composition of food), shelf-life and ease of use, suitable packaging to allow for rough handling, etc. 

When it comes such purpose-designed food, cost is an important parameter. The technology to achieve all the objectives mentioned above in a single, tailor-made foodstuff item does exist but it may drive the cost to prohibitive levels. It is essential to employ technologies that are either easy to cheap to implement or technologies that can - in parallel - find wide commercial application, which can help towards a quick lowering of their cost. Fermented foodstuffs with select microorganism strains is an example of a technology easy to implement (although many of the fermented foods we consume on a daily basis are far from ideal to distribute in times of crises). Packaging technologies belong to the second category.

Then, there is the question of nutritional content. Ideally, each consumer group would have their own emergency-food. But in practical terms, I feel that this would be unrealistic. It is not so much the problem of cost but rather the way to manage such supplies, both when designing the shipment of humanitarian aid and when receiving it. Especially in harsh conditions, where the recipients are the people affected directly, the margin for an organised, individual, nutrition-based distribution is next to impossible. 

I am no expert on the issue and, I admit, I have little knowledge on how humanitarian aid missions are designed and implemented. But I believe that revisiting the topic - at least to whatever has to do with the foodstuff part of the equation - may be a productive exercise, possibly indicating cost-effective ways that foods we have now can be made better with regards to any of the parameters that would matter in a disaster situation (shelf-life, nutrition content, cost, ...). To a somewhat similar direction, the EC recently had a call on "Health-value-added food products for population groups at risk of poverty" (KBBE-2010 general call). It would certainly be interesting to see the directions that the people, who will get the project on that topic, will follow!

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Food choice - a reading game

Fondant & Ice cream
Nutritious food; gourmet food; fast food; healthy food; baby food; convenience food; organic food... Food constitutes a human need tightly integrated to most sides of our social existence. In several places around the globe (but not everywhere), people have access to a considerable variety of foodstuffs, while new products pop up on a daily basis, often dynamically co-existing with traditional ones at nearby supermarket shelves.

There, consumers have the chance to choose. A number of factors are known to get in the middle, including biological, economic and social factors. Understanding the process of making a food choice, is certainly a hot desire for the corresponding sector these days. And it's not only the marketing pressure, as you may think. Surely, the food industry would love to make products that are (or can become) more appealing to consumers. But since food is closely associated with other things like health, it would be really useful if the choices people would go for, would also be "healthy" ones.

But there is a thin line somewhere there! Yes, food does affect the functions of the human body. Although research is still ongoing, there is clear evidence that food and the function of the nervous system, of the immune system and of the metabolism - to name a few of the systems/ processes of the human body - are related. But to what extent can food, on its own, prevent or cure diseases? If a food-health link is substantiated for a specific foodstuff, could food producers go ahead and inform the consumer on the health benefit of that food?

In Europe, nutrition and health claims are governed by Regulation (EC) 1924/2006. That Regulation places restrictions on what can be claimed of a food label and provides templates for a number of claims. Any health claim made on food labels must be true, not misleading and clearly understood by the average consumer; the claimed benefit should be achieved by reasonable consumption (specified by the producer); it must not imply that the by not consuming the food in question the consumer's health will be negatively affected; it should be accompanied with notes on the importance of a healthy, varied diet and a healthy lifestyle, and warn consumers on potential hazards associated with excessive consumption.

Regarding health claims, the Regulation discriminates across several categories:
  • Health claims that have to do with the general function of the organism
  • Health claims that refer to psychological or behavioural function
  • Health claims regarding slimming, satiety control, etc.
  • Health claims on the reduction of the risk of a disease or the health or development of children
The authorisation of each new claim depends on the category it falls under. However, in any case, claims examined by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) need to be sufficiently substantiated by scientific evidence, strong enough to demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between the nutrient or food that carries the claim and the claimed benefit. Don't be mistaken on that; that is no trivial task (e.g., check out the EFSA panel's recent opinion on an application for a health claim of a product containing cranberry extract, or for the function of phospholipids).

Clearly, the law offers - in a controllable way - opportunities for food producers to advertise to the consumers health benefits that foodstuffs may help towards. Critics do exist in both opposing camps: pro-health claims and contra-health claims. However, few can ignore the fact that consumers today can have access to increasingly more information on what they eat. All one needs to do, is take the time to read a label. Although - as some fear - we may be having increasingly longer food labels within the years to come!