‘Too much attention for more fruit and vegetables, too little for less refining’ – Industry should approach healthy food differently, finds Tasty Basics

According to TastyBasics research, we get about 50% of the calories we eat every day from processed raw materials, such as sugar and flour. These are refined treatments of natural products. The raw and hard parts and nutrients contained therein are broken down so that carbohydrates – and therefore calories – are concentrated in every gram you eat. A nutritional composition without these processed carbohydrates makes each calorie consumed more nutritious and satisfying. The effect of this is seriously underestimated, thinks TastyBasics director Jan Buining. “The focus is now too one-sided on the under-consumption of fruit and vegetables,” he says. “Improving average nutrition per calorie by curbing production and consumption of processed ingredients deserves much more attention.”

More vegetables versus less processed
TastyBasics believes that the industry should stop processing raw materials in order to achieve a higher nutritious yield per gram of food and even per calorie. The company speaks of ‘real food’ and means that what you eat must be optimally nutritious and satiating per calorie. “We consume too many calories, while at the recommended amount of calories, the nutritiousness of our current food is too low. For many essential nutrients, less than half of the population gets enough of them,” explains Buining.

The proportion of daily calories from processed ingredients that have been milked is much greater than that from 100 grams of extra vegetables groente

The central message of ‘Eat more vegetables’ does relatively little, concludes the white paper. The health effect of eating more nutritious products would be relatively small. For example, 100 grams of vegetables only provide a small part of the recommended daily amount of calories. “The proportion of daily calories from processed ingredients that have been milked out is much greater than that from an extra 100 grams of vegetables,” says co-author of the white paper Marlies Pepping (WUR student).

According to TastyBasics, it would be better to eat less processed raw materials. Consume and produce less food and drinks in which the calories are concentrated through fat and carbohydrates at the expense of the nutritional value. Because 50% of our average diet consists of these types of products, the effect is greater.

NRF Index 9.3
TastyBasics substantiates this statement with the Nutrient Rich Food Index 9.3 (NRF 9.3). The index indicates the nutrient content per 100 kilocalories (kcal) of a food. The index is based on 9 nutrients that should be stimulated (fibre, protein, iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium and vitamins A, C and E) and 3 nutrients that should be restricted (saturated fat, added sugars and sodium).

NRF calculation

Fulgoni, Keast and Drewnowski developed the so-called NRF index to rank foods based on their nutritional value. The index can be applied to individual foods, meals, menus and daily diets.

The NRF score of a food is the unweighted sum of the 100 kcal percentage contribution of that food to the recommended (encourage, ENC) daily intake (daily values, DVs) of all beneficial nutrients, minus the 100 kcal contribution of the food to the maximum recommended daily intake (maximum recommended values, MRVs) of the limit (limit, LIM) nutrients. The contribution to the recommended daily intake is truncated at 100 percent.

The NRF9.3 compensates ‘bad’ with ‘good’, just like the Nutri-Score algorithm does. Where Nutri-Score includes fruit, fiber and protein as ‘goodies’, the index also specifically includes iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium and vitamins A, C and E. The NRF index takes 100 kilocalories as a basis, while Nutri-Score calculates per 100 grams.

conversation starter
Foodlog asked a number of experts to respond to TastyBasics’ statement ‘Nothing is more effective than to stop processing raw materials’. And what about that NRF index? Is the nutritional value per calorie a logical measure?

Prof. Vincenzo Fogliano, hoogleraar Food Quality & Design, Wageningen University & Research

Vincenzo Fogliano thinks it’s basically a good idea. “Using more whole foods in products, less refined ingredients, is a good direction. Concentrating free sugars and fat is bad for your health. In addition, you lose nutrients with this.” All that processing can consume a lot of energy, making it less sustainable, he adds.

Another advantage is chewing: “Less refining means more chewing. Mastication, chewing well, is very effective in reducing calorie intake. By chewing well, you can eat 10-20% fewer calories.” Grinding longer gives our stomach time to let our head know that we are full. Plus, “you get tired of chewing at some point.”

”Does everything have to be healthy(er)?”

“But does everything have to be healthy?”, Fogliano wonders aloud. “A nice drink on Friday evening is not wrong, but it shouldn’t be every day. Enjoy your stroopwafel! The problem lies in spoiling ourselves every day.”

Moreover, Fogliano does not understand why we have to choose between one – more vegetables – or the other – less sugar. Both contribute to a healthier diet. Moreover, the ‘eat more vegetables’ advice seems to be mainly aimed at consumers. “Eating more vegetables is absolutely necessary,” Fogliano assures. The ‘less-processing’ advice seems mainly intended for the ears of processors and producers.

Finally, Fogliano warns not to lump everything edited together. “Somewhere is highly processed has become synonymous with high in calories. That is wrong. A can of soup in the supermarket is processed, but there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you choose sugary stuff, I advise you not to buy it.”

Jenneke Heising, program director training Food Technology, Safety on Quality & Design, and scientist, educator and researcher in the field of Food Quality and Design, Wageningen University & Research

Jenneke Heising sees several sides to TastyBasics’ statement. “On the one hand, I agree that concentrating and focusing too much on one ingredient, such as grains to flour, loses a lot of nutrients. The less you process, the more you benefit from good aspects of your own, such as fibers and vitamins.”

“But it’s not so black and white,” she continues. “Even if you use healthy ingredients, the calories still increase.” She mentions dried fruit as an example: “By drying you also concentrate. Fruits and vegetables are also added carbohydrates.”

When using the nutritional value per calorie, “vegetables come out positive.” The NRF index “shows which products provide a lot of nutrients and few calories. If you want to take calories as a basis, for example with a certain diet or as a producer, this way can help. But,” Heising adds critically, “it’s not a practical measure.”

“The less you process, the more you benefit from good aspects of your own, such as fiber and vitamins.”

Like Fogliano, Heising wonders if everything should be healthy(er). “If you have a good, healthy basis, you can sometimes eat a cracker with sprinkles or a biscuit. There is nothing wrong with regular pasta if you eat it with a good tomato sauce with vegetables. I think it’s more about how much you eat of a product. It doesn’t matter if it contains a lot of calories, if it also contains a lot of nutrients.” She gives fruit as an example: “It contains a relatively large amount of carbohydrates and energy, so it is healthy not to eat too much of it.”

At the end of the conversation, Heising emphasizes that she is most in favor of the advice to eat more vegetables. “You see that people do not consume enough vegetables. If you eat more of that, you automatically eat things with a lower energy density. You are full faster and there is less room for other products.”

Moreover, it is not always easy to edit less, says Heising. “The way of preserving has an influence on how many vitamins are left. Replacing flour affects taste and structure. I am not saying that we should not go for alternatives, but there is still a challenge there.”

Stefanie Vandevijvere, Senior Scientist Nutrition and Health, Sciensano (similar to the Dutch RIVM)

“It is becoming more and more evident that eating ultra processed foods leads to a higher risk of obesity and chronic diseases. If we really want to encourage people to eat healthier, we will have to make these unhealthy products less attractive.” Vandevijvere is convinced that government intervention is crucial to achieve this. “Make all highly processed foods less attractive, less cheap than healthy foods, less accessible and curb marketing for processed and unhealthy products,” she explains.

“If we really want to encourage people to eat healthier, we will have to make these unhealthy products less attractive.”

“Various systems have been developed to determine whether something is healthy.” Vandevijvere has confidence in the European nutrient profile model, developed by the World Health Organization (WHO). This model ranks products based on nutritional composition. It is specifically aimed at limiting child marketing. “The positive thing about this model is that it completely excludes certain food groups from marketing to children because they are unhealthy, such as chocolate and candies. Then there is a middle category, such as breakfast cereals and milk products, which must meet certain threshold values ​​for salt, saturated fat, energy, added sugar and sweeteners.” Vandevijvere is positive about taking sweeteners with them. Consuming sweeteners can fuel the craving for sweets.” The latter category, including fresh fruit and vegetables, can always be advertised.

The NRF 9.3 score is also a method of determining how healthy something is. That method uses calories as the basis. “I think it’s better to look at 100 grams or milliliters of product. This is easier for consumers to apply and is also stated on the back of the label. Per energy, is very difficult to understand.” Moreover, Vandevijvere is not a fan of taking vitamins into account. “By bringing vitamins (as NRF does), you give products that are unhealthy anyway, extra points. Producers can use this to put products on the market in a healthier way”, Vandevijvere expresses her criticism of the NRF9.3.

TastyBasics wants to propagate the transition to a healthy(er) food supply as straightforwardly as possible, but not in a polarizing way. TastyBasics does this with products that contain fewer fattening carbohydrates, are rich in fiber and proteins and to which no sugars have been added. In addition, TastyBasics is committed to advancing a new agrifood future through articles, lectures and research, based on the vision that food production and processing should be better coordinated with the aim of healthier people in a sustainable ecosystem.