Prof. Hans Hauner, TU München
Dagmar Freifrau von Cramm, Food-Journalist
Georg Schweisfurth, Ökopionier

You are what you eat

Dialogue forum on 22 May 2014, University of Applied Sciences

Many families lack a well-ordered eating culture. The demands made by work and the desire for more free time mean that the preparation of food is often neglected. Fast food and convenience foods are replacing a well-balanced diet. How we can nevertheless manage to live a healthy life was discussed by nutritional science and home economics professional Dagmar Freifrau von Cramm, clinical nutritionist Prof. Hans Hauner from the Technical University of Munich, and ecology pioneer Georg Schweisfurth.

What makes a healthy diet is not easy to define. "There is a broad corridor of possibilities, it even works with fatty Bavarian food", explained Prof. Hauner. During its evolution, the human being has developed an extremely adaptive metabolism that can also forgive dietary sins. However, one legacy left to us by our history is also the fact that our body craves sugar and fat, which in earlier times was a survival strategy. For this reason, it is the mixture that is important: "A well-balanced diet is important to ensure that we get all the requisite nutrients in a sensible composition", emphasised the director of the Else Kröner-Fresenius Centre for Nutritional Medicine at the TU Munich. However, because people are taking less and less time to prepare food – in Germany just around 20 minutes a day – fast food and convenience foods are on the rise. 

Hauner has a similarly critical view of seemingly health-promoting trends such as vegan diets. People must always exercise caution when it comes to hypes of all natures. The main problem is that the fundamental knowledge about a healthy diet which the older generation still had has been lost. In addition to this, the range of energy-dense, low-fibre foodstuffs on offer is steadily growing. As we moreover do not move enough, lifestyle diseases such as diabetes are rapidly gaining ground.

Consumers are faced with a difficult choice.
Things become even more complicated when not only health but also sustainability aspects are factored into the equation. There are no official national standards in this area, such different areas as water, climate balance, soil and air must be taken into consideration. "For the consumer it is very difficult to know what the right thing is in this context", pointed out nutritionist von Cramm. People who wish to live on a sustainable diet must not only concentrate on how the product was manufactured, but also take the transport and cooking processes into consideration.

Contrary to common opinion, regional products are not necessarily one step ahead in regard to climate balance. "Regional is good, if it's seasonal", is the slogan of the well-known food journalist. An apple from New Zealand in winter could be better, for example, if it was transported by ship and not by plane. The most climate-friendly type of nutrition would be a diet of uncooked vegetarian foods. However, a diet of vegetarian whole foods is also not off the mark, as they are relatively unprocessed. The consumption of meat, on the other hand, usually has a negative impact on the climate balance, although this depends too on the type of livestock animal and feeding methods involved. However, the influence of meat consumption on global hunger is overestimated. "If the OECD nations cut their meat consumption by half, the number of people suffering from hunger in the world would drop by seven per cent", explained von Cramm.

Different organic food standards
For eco-pioneer Schweisfurth it is beyond question that organic products are the better choice. "Organic is an agricultural system that sets down stringent rules for the use of fertilisers and pesticides and also for the welfare of the animals." It has nothing to do with regional markets; strawberries from Spain or bananas from South America can also be organic. The EU requirements for organic products form a minimum standard. In addition to this, the different farm product associations such as Demeter and Bioland apply much stricter rules.

"The use of pesticides and fertilisers has been on the decline in conventional farming for 30 years", Hauner contended. He admitted that chemical spray residues can still be traced, but that they are generally lower than the threshold values. "Our food has never been as safe and of such high quality as today", he explained. Still, in his opinion, the media often dramatise the situation, many people therefore have a distorted perception of the risks. Nevertheless, Hauner still wishes that we could dispense with pesticides completely. He is sceptical about the opinion that the global nutrition problems can be resolved by ecological agriculture. What is needed, he says, is the further development of the conventional cultivation methods.

"But the organics industry has been demonstrating for years that things can be done without pesticides", countered Schweisfurth. People just have to tax their brains a bit harder. Schweisfurth was not prepared to let the assertion that yields would definitely decline because of organic methods go unchallenged. "For example, in India where there is little seasonal rainfall, organic farming  even increases yields, as the organic cultivation methods improve the water retention capacity of the soil."

Strong influence exercised by food and beverage industry
"Organics have certainly set a development into motion, many things have changed", commented von Cramm. The understanding of food has undergone an enormous evolution as a result. However, the main problems still remain unhealthy diets and overeating. They are exceptionally prevalent in the less educated populace, socially disadvantaged groups and immigrants. A lot could be achieved if it were made easier for guests in canteens or people taking meals outside the home to eat a healthier diet. The food and beverage industry which tries to manipulate consumers with high advertising costs must also be viewed in a critical light. 

"In our society of affluence, it is very difficult for people to curtail themselves", added Hauner. The human being has a very short-term orientated lifestyle, which does not fit in with today's world. The nutritional scientist calls for tighter rules, such as in advertising for children's foodstuffs on television, which in some countries has already been prohibited or at least restricted. Hauner also sees a substantial backlog of remedial activity in the case of school meals. Although the German Nutrition Society (DGE) has set up good quality standards, implementation is limping along. "If I look at the school meals in Bavaria, where pizza or pasta of extremely one-sided quality is often dished out at midday, it is sometimes really indescribable what is being offered." Simple regulatory measures could achieve a great deal in this respect.

A patent remedy for the optimum diet obviously does not exist. However, using your common sense and not chasing after every short-term, hyped-up nutritional trend, or allowing yourself to be unduly unsettled by negative reporting is already doing a lot in the right way.

The event took place within the framework of the dialogue forums held by Munich Re Foundation in cooperation with the University of Munich, and offered students the possibility of discussion with the experts. 

26 May 2014