Author: Eva Hoogstins

Epicurious causes a stir by ditching beef: what can we learn from it?

Last week, the major cooking and food website epicurious.com, of Condé Nast Digital, announced that they will no longer be sharing any recipes containing beef with their 8.5M followers and website visitors. The reason for this is concern for the environment and the role that the steadily increasing consumption of beef plays in global warming, water overuse, and ocean dead zones.

Epicurious has stated that this is not a new move, and they have not published any recipes containing beef in the last year and a half. According to the editor in chief, for every beef recipe that they would have published previously, they instead published a vegetarian recipe with vegetables and legumes in front and centre.

The website claims that the amount of traffic and engagement on their website and socials has not decreased due to this change, and that consumers are eager to try more veggie recipes. Epicurious have not made any comment on whether this is the same audience, or whether their audience has shifted to more veggie fans. However, it is a clear sign that removing red meat from the menu (at least intermittently) is not a dealbreaker for many.

Even though the shift did not influence engagement, their official announcement clearly has. Some of their followers applauded the move, and showed appreciation for the variety in recipes and ingredients, as well as their open stance on environmentally-minded consumption.

Predictably, the announcement also received some negative attention, notably from the North American Meat Institute, as well as many individual social media followers. Criticism has included that removing chicken recipes instead of beef would reduce suffering to a larger extent, that small-scale, local beef consumption can be sustainable, and that this is ‘woke virtue signalling’.

It is unclear as of yet whether this announcement will influence the amount of traffic and engagement on their website.

If the traffic on their website had not decreased since the “ban” on beef recipes, will the formal announcement bring any added value?

There are three scenarios which will likely follow this announcement:

  1. Epicurious attracts a new crowd of environmentally-minded followers who appreciate this statement, for example vegetarians
  2. Epicurious alienates part of their current audience, the hard ‘carnivores’
  3. Their current readers who are ambivalent or who do not have a strong opinion on this stance, for example flexitarians, remain equally engaged and as a result reduce their own consumption of beef.

Read more here

 

 

Are nylon bags for fruits and vegetables really an improvement?

Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn (AH) has announced that they will stop giving out free plastic bags for loose vegetables and fruit. From April 19th onwards consumers can choose AH’s own new nylon bags or bring their own bag. These reusable bags will be free for two weeks and cost 30 cents per piece thereafter.

Besides the nylon bags, AH is launching a series of reuseable bags made of PET-plastic, which consumers can start purchasing this week (in the Bonus for €1,39).

At first glance this looks is a solid step forward for the supermarket lowering its environmental impact. Reusable plastic must be better, right?

Not necessarily. Research around the world about the effects of similar efforts show that there often is little environmental impact, but financially the supermarkets can certainly benefit.

In order to truly make a difference in terms of environmental footprint, these reusable bags will need to do better than single-use bags in three important aspects:

  • How the bags are produced
  • How often the bags are used
  • How the bags are disposed of

Production

Nylon is made from fossil fuels and a great amount of energy and water are used to produce nylon fibres. During production, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is released into the air, as well as carbon dioxide (CO2).

Nylon bags need more fossil fuels, more energy, and more water to be produced than single-use plastic bags as the material is thicker and sturdier. Which means that nylon is only better if the bags are actually used multiple times. The exact number of times it would need to be reused depend on which exact polyamide these bags are made of (there are multiple forms of this material).[1]

However, we do know that bags made from recycled PET must be reused at least 84 times to have the same total environmental impact as single-use plastic bags.

Replacing plastic for a non-plastic such paper or cotton bags will also not necessarily be an improvement. The total environmental footprint of paper bags is 43 times as large as that of single-use plastic, while that of cotton is 7,100 times that. The solutions is not replacing bags with other bags. Plastic tends to have lower environmental impact for most metrics with the exception of its non-degradability and marine pollution.

 

Usage

Whatever type of bag is used, the key to reducing its environmental impact is to reuse it as many times as possible. Will consumers actually take their AH nylon bag with them to the supermarket and reuse it multiple times? Perhaps. But there is also a chance that they do that a couple of times, then forget and buy a new nylon bag, only to forget it at home once more next time they go shopping.

A report from Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) looked at the statistics of reusable plastic bag sales in the UK. They found that the top stores sold 1.5 billion plastic reusable bags in 2019, an average of 54 reusable plastic bags per household. Perhaps, people are not so good at remembering to take their plastic bags with them.

On the other hand, “single-use” plastic bags are sometimes reused at least once more.

We have asked our community of conscious consumers (166 participants) what they do when they shop at the fruit and vegetable section of a supermarket. 35% said they do not make use of the plastic bags available. Another 40% have said that when they do need to use a plastic bag to carry their produce with they always try to reuse it at least once more, either as a shopping bag or for another purpose (e.g. lining trashcans). This makes the equation even favourable for the single-use plastic bags (which are not single use after all apparently. Only 6% of the respondents throw away their plastic bag after a single use (non-recycling).

 Disposal

Recycling nylon is difficult and expensive. Alternatively, nylon can be incinerated, broken down in fire and form hazardous smoke. But this is quite expensive, so it is mostly disposed by being dumped in a landfill, where it can take 30 – 40 years to decompose. It ends up in plastic soups, or plastic islands, and leaves traces in the ocean (microplastics) and on land. Microplastics also end up in the water supply when nylon is washed by consumers at home.

Simply switching to cheap reusable bags will not stop consumers from throwing those bags away eventually. We can expect that people who now have adopted the habit of throwing away plastic will eventually also throw away the nylon bag which only costs 30 cents.

The development of bio-degradable plastic seems promising. But currently scientists has not been able to produce material that has a full functionality but biodegrades at its end of life. It is still to be seen whether a biodegradable material with low environmental production footprint will be developed.

What is Albert Heijn’s motivation?

Of course in the long run there are advantages in taking single-use and unnecessary plastic out of the equation. It’s a good thing that AH takes steps to reduce the amount of plastic in their shops and our homes. Replacing the plastic vegetable bags in part of a larger plan. Albert Heijn is taking a number of other steps to reduce plastic that will be effective. For example, they are improving the design of their vegetable packaging so that less and/or thinner plastic is used.

At the same time, these changes looks good in press releases. It will help AH maintain their image of a supermarket that is doing its best to be sustainable.

And there are financial consequences for AH when they stop giving away free bags, and instead charging a (small) amount for the new bags. Suppose AH will sell the nylon bags with a margin of 20% (or 6 euro cents). If we then assume that they have 3 million customers (based on their 35% market share) who each buys 3 nylon bags annually (a conservative estimation), it means we can estimate AH is making a half a million euro of pure profit on this initiative. The supermarket chain estimates that these new bags will replace 130 million single-use bags, which will also save them a substantial amount of money.

Based on previous research about similar efforts we predict that the actual environmental impact will be minimal and possibly even negative, while the financial impact for AH will be rather positive.

The real solution is changing consumer behaviour

In order to truly make a difference, there are better solutions than offering reusable bags. Most of these focus on a more drastic change in consumer’s shopping behaviour. So what can Albert Heijn do instead?

When it comes to reusing bags for produce, encourage consumers to use whatever bag they already own instead of buying a new one. Albert Heijn seems to want something similar with the “never forget your fresh bag?” message that accompanied the announcement of the nylon bags in the bonus brochure this week, but this is only a very gentle reminder. Not offering a bag for vegetables would force consumers to really think about their behaviour. Is it really necessary to put different kinds of vegetables in a separate bag? What can I do to make sure I always bring my own bag? This may not be customer friendly in the short term, but in the end this may cause the required disruption from the worn-in behaviour.

Apart from reducing the amount of packaging all supermarkets should play an active role in stimulating proper recycling of packaging materials. One way would be to offer the ability to return plastics to a container in or near every shop. At the very least supermarkets can make an effort to educate their customers by explaining how certain types of packaging can be properly recycled.

A step further would be to start selling more types of food in bulk. Nuts, cereals, rice, pastas, coffee, tea, but even soaps and detergents can be sold loose. Customers can opt to bring their own containers, or “borrow” containers from the supermarket for a refundable fee. A system like this is already being offered by Pieter Pot in Rotterdam, Delicious Food in Amsterdam, and Little Plant Pantry also in Amsterdam. Nestlé is trailing a similar system for pet care and coffee in Switzerland.

 

[1] We reached out to Albert Heijn for more information about the materials used and their environmental impact but we have not received a response to this date.

Fish fraud: 1/3 of seafood mislabeled

A recent analysis of 44 studies spanning 30 countries found that 36% of seafood samples were mislabeled. The DNA analyses in these studies tested a total of 9,000 samples of fish and other seafood in restaurants, fishmongers, and supermarkets. In one of the studies looking at ‘snapper’ (fish) the UK and Canada had the highest rates of mislabeling, at 55%, followed by the US at 38%.

Sometimes they were labelled as a different species in the same family, and in other cases the samples turned out to be of endangered fish species. Finally, there were also cases where processed seafood (prawn balls) frequently contained pork and even no trace of prawn.

Fish fraud is not a recent issue, and it has long been known worldwide. The complex supply chain and lack of transparency make it easy to mislabel fish for profit. It is often low-value fish that is mislabeled as high-value fish, while farmed fish is sold as ‘caught in the wild’. Due to this tendency to label fish as having a higher value, the authors of this analysis concluded that more often than not these were cases of fraud rather than carelessness.

The mislabeling can cause health risks (e.g. parasites in specific species), and reduce the nutritional value taken-in by consumers (e.g. lower levels of omega-3).

The ease with which this fraud can take place is linked to illegal and unregulated fishing where the large catch of is processed on board. At the same time, legally caught, high-value fishermen are forced to lower their prices to compete with cheap, mislabeled fish.

The opaque supply chain and low risk of getting caught, in combination with higher monetary value, increase the incentive to fish and process the catch illegally.

Read more here.

Agricultural And Meat Workers May Be More Supportive Of Cultured Meat Than We Might Expect

A recent study looked at perception of cultured meat in France and Germany, and whether there is a potential market for this novel food.

The researchers examined whether people would be open to buying this kind of meat, and what type of consumers are more likely to do so.

Overall they found that in both countries there is a substantial market for cultured meat. Germany has overall higher acceptance levels (58% would try cultured meat), compared to France (44%). This supports the researchers’ finding that only a minority of their German participants (45%) identifies as an omnivore, with everyone else either being a vegetarian, vegan, or flexitarian.

In both countries, younger people are more likely to accept cultured meat, while men and urban consumers are more likely to do so in France.

One finding which was most striking is that people who work in animal agriculture or meat processing were significantly more likely to say they would buy cultured meat, compare to those who do not work in these industries.

This is surprising, as more rural consumers tend to reject cultured meat believing that this technology would threaten animal farmers’ jobs. The authors suggest that farmers may see cultured meat as a way to deal with the mass demand for affordable meat. This would give them the opportunity to leave intensive industrial production and go back to more traditional ways of animal farming.

To our knowledge this is the first study that compared animal agriculture workers’ attitudes towards cultured meat with those of the rest of the population. The findings can be used as an argument to improve the attitudes of rural consumers towards cultured meat.

Read more here.

 

 

Experimenting With Photosynthesis

Photosynthesis ensures that plants can use sunlight to grow. Most plants appear to do this very inefficiently. Scientists are experimenting with test plants, which grow faster with increased photosynthesis than the unchanged plants. They are even growing purple and yellow chloroplasts, which can also absorb energy from infrared light. Then the plant can continue to grow day and night.

More efficient plants have many environmental benefits, such as requiring less space for the same amount of food production, but also more CO2 capture, and more carbon storage in the soil. Whether it will really work is being investigated, scientists have their hands full with it.

Read more here (in Dutch).

Avocados With A Longer Shelf Life Thanks To Natural Chemicals

Apeel Sciences, the developer of a new technology that makes fruit and vegetables more resistant to spoilage, is working together with Nature’s Pride, one of the largest avocado traders. Together they want to make sure avocados will stay good for twice as long.
Apeel’s technology uses chemicals that occur naturally in plant husks, and those chemicals ensure that water loss and oxidation, the biggest culprits that cause spoilage, will be reduced.

Read more here.

Turning Desert Into Farmland Using Just Water And Clay

Arid land filled with rows and rows of green leaves and fresh fruits and vegetables. This is made possible by Liquid Nanoclay– a new innovation produced by Norwegian startup Desert Control. Made with just water and clay, Liquid Nanoclay is designed to be sprayed on sand or sandy soil.

According to the company, the mixture increases the fertility of nutrient-poor sandy soils and reduces water usage by more than 50%. Invented in the mid 2000’s by Norwegian scientist Kristian Olesen, Desert Control’s technology turns thick clay into a liquid nearly as thin as water. When sprayed onto sand, this runny consistency allows it to “trickle down and percolate out. Clay-rich soils hold more nutrients and water.

Growing crops in the desert is a high priority for many countries with desertification on the rise globally. Innovations that allow crops to flourish in dry areas could help shore up the food supply in many countries.

Sounds too good to be true? Tests are currently being done to make sure that there is no negative impact on fragile desert ecosystems. Another downside is the costs. Scientists are working on scaling up production and developing a mobile unit, which will certainly bring down costs.

If the price can be reduces and made affordable for the least income countries, the invention can have a tremendous impact on food security and the ability of many of those countries to use their own crops.

Read more here.

Carbon Neutral Fertilizer Made Possible By Belgian Scientists

Making fertilizer is one of the most polluting processes on earth. Belgian scientists have found a way to produce it locally on a small scale using nothing but the energy coming from a number of solar panels and the air around them.

They use techniques know from diesel engines to produce the ammonia and hydrogen needed for fertilizer. It is estimated that 2% of the worldwide CO2 emissions come from the production of ammonia.

Because the system is small farmers can produce their own fertilizer eliminating the need for polluting transportation. Because of this the system can also be applied in remote areas where the farmers normally don’t have access to a regular supply of fertilizer.

Read more here (in Dutch).

Millions Of Dutch People Want To Live More Sustainably But Do Not Succeed In Doing So

‘Een dagje Groen’ (one day Green) is a national campaign that helps the Dutch take sustainable steps. “Millions of people want to make sustainable choices, such as eating less meat or taking a shorter shower, but feel that they are not succeeding sufficiently. This is the conclusion of a study by Motivaction. On the website Eendagjegroen.nl, consumers can experiment and see immediately how much they can help the environment. In addition, the website adds up what all the participants together mean for the environment”.

Read more here (in Dutch). 

If It Says “Bio” We Tend To Find It Tastier And Healthier

Consumers think of food products carrying an organic label as tastier and healthier. This is the conclusion of research conducted by the University of Ghent (UGent, Belgium). It was published in Food Research International.

​For the research, 151 subjects ate organic yogurt, fruit juice and crisps. The subjects each received 2 portions of exactly the same organic product, but one with an organic label and the other without that label. The organic labeled products scored 6 to 10% higher on taste and aroma and were considered healthier. The test panel also estimated that the number of kilo-calories was on average 15% lower. The latter is particularly worrisome, as it can lead to people eating more of the product.

Read more here (in Dutch).

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