When can a manufacturer claim that their cookies are healthy? What rules should they stick to? And how is testing done to ensure that these cookies are actually healthy? The Food Claims Centre Venlo is addressing these questions. It is a collaboration between Maastricht University and the Brightlands Campus in Venlo. Alie de Boer is an assistant professor at Maastricht University and started this centre. “I saw an increasing gap between food legislation on the one hand and food science on the other.”

This story is part of a series of stories about the Dutch Agri Food Week 2018. Alie de Boer gave a lecture during the opening of this event. Read the other articles here

Because before a product comes into the market it must satisfy strict rules. Especially when it comes to new products such as cultured meat. It must be completely safe and should not have any side effects on health. “This has not always been the case; originally, European legislation was mainly focused on stimulating European trade,” says de Boer. This is changing after, among other things, the BSE (mad cow disease) outbreak in the 1990s. European trade is no longer the only guiding principle of new laws, but the safety and interests of consumers are also included.

European legislation had the additional aim of stimulating innovation in the food sector, but according to de Boer, this did not quite work out. “To be allowed to use a health claim, everything must be scientifically proven. The same applies to new products, which is a slow and expensive process. You have to provide proof for everything. As a result, companies more often choose to continue using existing production methods. Or choose not to do research into whether their product can make a health claim. This hesitancy stands in the way of innovation. But on the other hand, it is good that the regulations are in place, it is not acceptable for producers to be able to put anything into food. Or say on the packaging of chocolate bars, for example, that they are super healthy.”

At the Food Claims Centre, De Boer is trying to think about new ways of research that legally meet the requirements, provide safe and – if possible – healthy food. “We know that vitamin C has a positive effect on our health, as has been scientifically proven in various studies. But orange juice, for example, contains much more than just vitamin C. What effects do these other substances have? Sugar, for example, do we take it for granted?” de Boer asks herself aloud. “The legislation forces scientists to investigate what one specific substance causes in a product. Firstly, this is extremely difficult to prove and secondly, we know for a long time now that food is much more than just that one substance.” By this, de Boer refers to the multiple meals we eat each day. “When do you measure it? And can you really pin the result on that one substance? Often it is a collaboration of different nutrients that have a certain effect. More attention should be paid to this, both in research and legislation.”

In the same legislation it is currently also stated that animal testing is necessary to demonstrate safety, among other things, according to de Boer: “In many other sectors, a great deal is happening to limit or even eliminate animal testing. In the food industry, it is a requirement in European legislation; we could think of something better for this, couldn’t we? Computer models, for example.”

By working together with the legal, business and scientific sectors, de Boer aims to contribute to innovation in the food sector through the Food Claims Centre. “We can help companies to set up thorough research that complies with all guidelines and rules, so that they can find out whether their products can have positive effects on health. They can then use this knowledge to improve their products or it can help them to discover new applications. But we will also talk to policymakers about regulation and whether it works out as intended. Does it really benefit the consumer?”