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What is on our plate? : Safe, healthy and sustainable diets in the Netherlands

Wat ligt er op ons bord? : Veilig, gezond en duurzaam eten in Nederland


This report contains an erratum on the last pages of the report d.d. 20-03-2018

Huge challenges and ambitions
Most Dutch people are healthy and life expectancy is growing. Simultaneously, half of the Dutch population is overweight and this rate is even higher in lower socioeconomic groups. In addition, 9 out of 10 people eat too little fruit and vegetables, and nearly 30 percent of our food is of animal origin. The diet of an average Dutch person does not only lead to health losses, but also constitutes a major burden on the environment. It results in greenhouse gas emissions comparable to transport emissions. The annual food waste is 47 kilogram per person. Food in the Netherlands is mostly safe: approximately 1 in 24 people a year have a food infection, which usually is not serious. Most chemicals in food pose a negligible risk to public health. The Netherlands aims to take the lead in the international ambition for a healthy, sustainable and safe dietary pattern. To achieve this aim an integral policy is required, in which safety, health and sustainability are taken into account.

In this report, RIVM presents facts and figures about the safety, health and ecological sustainability of food in the Netherlands and analyzes the dilemmas and opportunities for an integrated food policy. Avoiding overconsumption, a diet with more plant-based and less animal-based products, and less sugar-containing and alcoholic drinks: these constitute three opportunities for a healthier and more sustainable dietary pattern. Taking advantage of these opportunities will lower the number of chronically ill, reduce health inequalities and contain the impact of food production on the environment. And, it tends to have a positive effect on the safety of our diet, as a lower meat consumption is associated with a lower rate of food infections.

There are however dilemmas to be faced. Not all measures related to a healthy diet are sustainable and safe, and vice versa. For example, it is eco-friendly if every part of an animal is used for consumption. This also implies the consumption of processed meat, such as sausage, which in itself is less healthy. Moreover, there is a tension between abstract, long-term goals (healthier, more sustainable and safe) and concrete choices in everyday life. Many citizens and businesses consider health and sustainability to be important, but when shopping for food, consumers' choices are primarily determined by price and convenience. Companies, in turn, want to serve these consumers and make a profit.

Making choices
The tension between sustainable, healthy and safe food on the one hand, and convenience, affordability and economy on the other, necessitates choices. To find a way out requires the government to take on an active role, and to cooperate with the agricultural sector, businesses, citizens and social organizations. Not only do consumers need to be well informed, but a healthier and more sustainable food supply is also needed. The same applies to an environment that promotes healthy and sustainable behavior. Influential parties, such as purchasing organizations for supermarkets and retail, are potentially important partners. The fact that many citizens and businesses attach importance to sustainable, healthy and safe food legitimizes the government taking on this active role.

Seizing opportunities
There are opportunities for an integrated approach. Dutch society is characterized by entrepreneurship and innovation capacity. Presently, there are citizens' initiatives that focus on responsible food. Companies welcome these initiatives and contribute through smart solutions that allow them to make a profit. If the government encourages and facilitates these developments, the social ambitions, entrepreneurial spirit and innovative capacity of all parties will be taken advantage of.

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