The Dutch diet can be healthier and more environmentally sustainable without costing consumers more money. This holds for all socio-economic groups in the Netherlands. This concludes Reina Vellinga (RIVM) in her doctoral thesis. Even with minor adjustments, our diet becomes much healthier and with less impact on the environment. For instance, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by a quarter. In order to facilitate Dutch consumers to adapt their diet, Vellinga suggests the government should focus on changing the entire food system. This will require a cohesive package of effective measures, such as price adjustments. 

Such package of measures could facilitate consumers to make better food choices. According to Vellinga the current policy to promote a healthier and more sustainable diet is insufficient and too fragmented. The diet transition could be accelerated by a joint and overarching long-term strategy and greater cooperation among and between public authorities ,the government, the agrifood sector and consumers. 

More guidance by government 

By making different food choices, consumers can help improve their health and reduce the impact of their diet on the environment. For instance by eating fewer unhealthy foods that are high in saturated fat, sugar and/or salt, and eating fewer animal-based foods, such as red and/or processed meat. However, Vellinga stresses that consumers cannot be held solely responsible for changing their diets. Consumers face the availability of unhealthy and non-sustainable foods in food outlets. Therefore, she says, now is the time for more government control. Companies also have a role to play, helped by clear guidelines from the government.

Making healthy and sustainable foods more affordable

Among the measures known to have an impact are price adjustments. These could be used, for example, to make healthy and sustainable foods more affordable and unhealthy and non-sustainable foods more expensive. As demonstrated by an earlier RIVM study, higher prices (through taxation) and provision of information about the environmental impact of meat production reduces meat purchases by 36%. 

Mixture of measures

Combining multiple measures, such as the Nutri-Score front-of-pack logo to inform consumers about better choices and an update of national dietary guidelines, can enhance the effect of price adjustments. Additionally, increasing the availability of healthy and sustainable foods and promoting them with measures such as special offers can facilitate consumers in the direction of such foods. Manufacturers could enable better choices by improving the composition of foods. According to Vellinga, mandatory reformulation is required, making foods healthier (less saturated fat, sugar and/or salt) and/or more environmentally sustainable (fewer animal-based ingredients/proteins/lower environmental impact).

Vellinga will obtain her doctorate from Wageningen University & Research today.