“We need to seduce consumers into newer, healthier habits”

A tasteful solution to the world’s food problem

Can taste help us make healthier, sustainable food choices? Gastronome, restaurateur and man-on-a-mission Professor Peter Klosse believes so. Following the 2018 TASTE Summit in Maastricht, he explains how it can impact global food security.

When we think about securing a sustainable future for our food, we usually think about things like organic farming, water management and greenhouse gas emissions. Very rarely does taste come into the equation. But according to Professor Peter Klosse, who in 2017 set up his research foundation The Academy for Scientific Taste Evaluation (TASTE), the two go together like, well, salt and pepper.

Changing our food choices

Klosse explains: “If we want a healthy future for the planet and its people, our food choices need to change: they must be less meat-centric, less processed, less sweet and more plant-based. If we eat straight from the land, we won’t just have healthier people (easing the strain on national health budgets) but we will also have less of a water-shortage problem and lower greenhouse gas emissions because of all that processing we cut out.

“Over the last thirty years we have become good at producing enormous quantities of cheap food, but have lost some important values, like taste. Industrialization and globalization have meant that our food system produces ‘commodities’ that need to be standardized, as well as comply with particular specifications and guidelines about what they should, and should not, contain.”

“We need to seduce consumers into newer, healthier habits”

- Professor Peter Klosse, TASTE

Convenient, affordable and tasty

Nature, however, does not fit comfortably into this system of industrialization. With its erratic rainfall and unpredictable temperatures, nature’s produce – largely fruit and veg – is often overshadowed in the marketplace by processed food. Unless this changes, says Klosse, many farmers will keep being forced out of business. And all that lovely taste goes down the drain.

The food industry restores lost taste by using additives like salt, sugar and other chemicals. “But this is creating addictions to foods that are not good for us. Neuroscience research shows that the brain is not just affected by the food we eat – when we get into a habit of any sort, certain brain functions stop working. So we need to ‘seduce’ consumers into newer, healthier habits, and their new food choices need to be convenient, affordable and tasty, like their old ones.”

“Science is concerned with nutrients, but food is so much more”

- Professor Peter Klosse, TASTE

Bringing together food scientists and chefs

To raise awareness, educate and inspire solutions to these problems, Klosse organizes an annual TASTE Summit, bringing together food scientists and chefs. “Most food scientists are not chefs,” he points out. “They are largely concerned with nutrients, but food is so much more.” This year’s Summit, which took place on October 9, considered Vital Foods. Last year’s theme was Deliciousness and next year Klosse plans to structure it around agriculture.

Klosse also gives presentations at food events worldwide, has written a thriller highlighting the theme (as yet only available in Dutch, Een Uitgekookte Zaak), and is part of Google Food Lab. The TASTE foundation has received financial support from local government to research new methods of analysis for the sensory evaluations used by food retailers, to help encourage consumers toward healthier buying behavior. Another one of the foundation’s ongoing activities is consultancy, advising companies with taste-related challenges.

According to Professor Klosse’s research, we are more likely to buy a salad described as ‘traditional, authentic, and Tuscan’ than one labeled ‘fresh, sustainably produced and healthy.’

The art of seduction

“Currently, retailers evaluate food products without giving the taster information about the food, assuming that the less we know about it, the better we can judge it.” But that, Klosse says, is a false assumption. “We don’t experience food like that in everyday life. We usually eat food as part of a meal, for example. There is a social context, and marketing influences.

“I did research for the Google Food Lab that showed that if you create a ready-made meal from fresh, tasty vegetables and label it as ‘fresh, sustainably produced and healthy,’ people are less likely to buy it than if you put on the packaging: ‘Traditional, authentic Tuscan salad,’ for example. Same food, different message.”

Professor Peter Klosse: “New food choices need to be convenient, affordable and tasty.”

Dietary guidelines don’t work

One of the takeaways from this year’s Summit confirmed the challenge of labeling food and diets as ‘healthy.’ Guest keynote speaker Carlos Augusto Monteiro, Professor of Nutrition and Public Health at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, showed that pointing the finger with dietary ‘do’s and don’ts’ doesn’t work. “We need to involve chefs and consumers, as well as look at other factors, like socioeconomic issues,” suggests Klosse.

Currently, Klosse is working on proof of concept, facilitating research into improving today’s sensory analysis methods to help develop more scientific insight in taste. He is keen to test his methods, encouraging anyone involved in taste-related projects to get in touch.

A brighter future

Changing behavior is a formidable challenge, but with Klosse’s gastronomic roots (he inherited his parents’ restaurant, De Echoput near Apeldoorn, which has earned Michelin stars for 36 years) and his academic background, it is one he seems happy to take on. “When we learn more about key taste factors and people’s preferences, we can use that knowledge to create a brighter future for people, farmers and producers in a sustainable environment.”