In the professional life of food expert and university lecturer Alie de Boer, everything revolves around getting honest information about healthy and sustainable food. Being patronized is a pet peeve of hers. “Every consumer should be able to make their own assessment.”
Absolutely, and even nutritional scientist Alie de Boer occasionally can suffer from occupational hazard. She always makes sure to check out the local supermarket to read labels, even when she’s on vacation. Not that there are any major differences within Europe, by the way. In Austria, she saw a warning on a package recommending that consumers should separate the plastic edge on a slice of cheese for disposal from the paper dish the product comes in.
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Brussels and The Hague
The information on these labels, websites or leaflets is crucial to making a wise choice for a healthy or sustainable product, she says. Founded by Alie de Boer, the knowledge center in Venlo is researching, advising, educating and monitoring this information. She shares her expertise in Brussels and The Hague and is happy to explain the importance of this in consumer programs. Recent work involves cultured dairy products, and what exactly a label should say about them. Choices like this, as well as whether the product was produced sustainably enough, should be able to be made on the basis of honest information on a label.
We eat mainly because something tastes good. For more and more people, food has to be healthy or sustainable. And we assume our food is safe. But is the information on a label correct, and most importantly, does it tell the whole story?Alie de Boer
Food Claims Centre
Born in Friesland, Alie de Boer ended up at Maastricht University by way of Wageningen (Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition & Health) and has been based in Venlo for about five years now. This is where she founded the Food Claims Centre and conducts research with her team and students. She has very few illusions that she can turn the world on its head. “We eat mostly because something tastes good, because we feel like it and, for more and more people, food has to be healthy or sustainable. And we assume our food is safe. But is the information on a label correct, and most importantly, does it tell the whole story?”
One can only guess what the answer is. This fall, for example, will be the first time labels on beer, wine and liquor will be required to state the sugar content in these products. As an expert, Alie de Boer was asked to be involved in researching proposed changes to these labels. For her, it’s strange that the sector has always enjoyed being an exception in this regard. It often is a complex matter, however. “There are fifty different names for sugar. It’s incredibly complicated; there are a lot of compounds that can impart sweetness. This makes it hard to know how far you need to go in providing this information, and how accurate you should be. There will undoubtedly be a group of people who want more precise details. Shouldn’t we be able to make this a little easier or more accessible?”
The rules about what’s allowed on packaging are pretty strict, according to De Boer. In the meantime, influencers are telling anyone who’ll listen how delicious this tea is they’ve just tried. “One recent trend was ginger shots, something people pay huge amounts of money for but you have to realize they don’t have much of an effect. We do know that ginger does help alleviate nausea, but all these stories about how it gives you energy and a boost are not backed by any scientific basis. If you choose to believe this and if you want to spend money on that: be my guest, go crazy. But don’t go around trying to convince other people using the argument that it’s healthy.”
What would she recommend then? “I would want to add a line to the label that the effect hasn’t been proven yet. Some of this is already being done, but some of it isn’t. In addition to vitamin supplements, there are many other supplements on the market that contain herbs. And while the claims on these products are pretty tightly regulated, there’s still no final conclusion when it comes to these herbal products. The effects of a substance have to be scientifically proven before you can associate them with a claim. When it comes to herbs, the evidence is mostly just anecdotal. For example: this product has been taken in the Netherlands for headaches for thirty years. This isn’t proof. You need to conduct a study on this to make sure the effect is measurable. For now, the rule in the Netherlands is you can put a disclaimer on these types of products to say we are awaiting approval. The first thought that comes to mind is okay, we can be awaiting approval, but chances are it will never arrive. After all, it’s very difficult to prove the product is effective in large groups of healthy people.”
Alie de Boer and her team of six co-researchers also conduct their own research on the effects of food. One example is a study on the allegedly beneficial effects of sulforaphane in broccoli. Evidence from cell and animal studies suggest that this substance could reduce inflammation and thus reduce your risk of obesity or diabetes. “The initial results already seem to show interesting effects in healthy people,” says the nutritional scientist. “We often look at food as if it’s a medicine. You take a substance, you measure only one effect and that effect is supposed to be healthy. However, a nutritional product contains many different substances, and one of these substances often has many different effects and functions. Vitamin C is a good example of this. Looking at all these different effects is a very complex process. When it comes to sulforaphane, we’re trying to better identify this using new models.”
Why do they do this type of work? “This research can provide scientific proof that fruit and vegetables are healthy. I’m not quick to say that nutrition will work as medicine, but on average, it can contribute to keeping us healthy for longer. This means lower healthcare costs and being happy longer. If we can help more people to eat fruit and vegetables, then I consider my mission to be accomplished.”
Alie de Boer, researcher and lecturer, is based at Maastricht University’s education campus in Venlo. She tries to create as many connections as she can with Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo, just a few kilometers away. “People there are working on cultivating healthy food and healthy eating habits, and we act as a link in these efforts. And while they’re aware of us and our work and vice versa, there is always room for improvement when it comes to contact.”
My hope is that we have already made some contribution to consumers’ realization that they need to have a choice, and you need good info to achieve thisAlie de Boer
We’re in a good position in Europe in terms of food safety, says De Boer. She does think we should be talking a lot more about sustainability however. “If a shipment of mangoes is sent from Costa Rica, bringing with it a considerable carbon footprint, I think this is information that should be shared with consumers. They can always decide to buy the mangoes anyways because they’re so delicious.”
What’s the status of the Food Claims Centre now? Alie de Boer: “My hope is that we have already made some contribution to consumers’ realization that they need to have a choice, and you need good info to achieve this. Different companies and organizations approach us to discuss these choices that involve health, food safety and sustainability. They ask us to help them come up with ideas. We also try to make sure that the knowledge we acquire becomes accessible. This is another area producers contact us about when they’re developing a product, and ask us what types of things they need to look out for. Sometimes they ask us to explain the legislation to them.”
“Brightlands is super important for us; their link to companies and entrepreneurs teaches us what goes on in practice. We don’t work in the commercial sector, but we are able to advise them in a variety of areas. Suppose a grower comes up with a new tomato variety. What should they be able to demonstrate about the nutrients in it and how detailed does this need to be? These are questions that are reasonable to apply, but there is still a legal layer underneath all this. Nutrition shouldn’t remain theoretical; it’s about what we eat, after all.”
Alie de Boer calls the knowledge center her “baby,” although one is now growing in her belly too. And while both of her babies are doing great, this is a story about Venlo. “There is an incredible entrepreneurial spirit here; people see opportunities everywhere. The campus is home to companies with an enormous amount of knowledge, but above all, they also have the will to make progress. This accessibility, the likelihood of running into each other at a campus is something I have loved from the beginning. There has to be a common goal in order to stay motivated, and I get a strong sense of this here.
It’s important for them to realize that research doesn’t just end up in a paper that will get you your PhD. The knowledge has to make it to places where people need itAlie de Boer
Research can be pretty lonely. You’re sitting there on your own, figuring things out and thinking, who is ever going to be fascinated by this? You have to keep that common goal in sight.” The same goes for the PhD candidates on her team. “It’s important for them to realize that research doesn’t just end up in a paper that will get you your PhD. The knowledge has to make it to places where people need it.”