A better diet for longevity and the planet: from ingredients to intelligent cooking and storing
“Correct nutrition" extends beyond being informed about the recommended daily intakes and nutritional qualities of foods. A series of collateral factors, like cooking systems, are of equal importance. At NICA, we have explored how to preserve the nutritional qualities of food through sustainable innovation.
There is long-standing evidence which suggests that health is affected by dietary factors – both the quantity of food and its nutritional quality. In particular, poor diet can lead to obesity and can contribute to increased risk of specific age-related diseases, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer. Diet and nutrition can affect the health of the brain and lead to cognitive harm, for example via strokes, and there is some evidence which suggests a link to an increased risk of developing dementia. Research suggests that dietary requirements change as we age, but there is limited knowledge of the nutritional requirements of older people.
John Mathers, Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Newcastle, explained: “Part of the problem is the complexity of the nutritional needs of older people, because that greater age is usually associated with a greater likelihood of people having multiple conditions—diseases of one kind or another, combined with the use of a whole range of drugs.” Ruthe Isden of Age UK suggested that malnutrition is more common than obesity for older people, noting that “there are around 1.6 million older people who are malnourished or at risk of malnutrition”. This high prevalence of malnutrition is partly because the smaller appetite of older people makes it harder for them to obtain the necessary range of nutritional content, for example protein to retain muscle mass. Specifically, for older adults, noted in Perspectives and Theories of Social Innovation for Ageing Population, “a greater concern for avoiding musculoskeletal lesions and falls and enhance coordination and balance should be present, associated with adequate intake of vitamin D to prevent osteoporosis, and of proteins to prevent sarcopenia”.
Therefore, if correct nutrition is crucial for our longevity, it is also true that the concept of “correct nutrition” does not only consist of being informed about the necessary quantity and nutritional qualities of food, but also resides – equally – in a series of collateral aspects that we could summarise in the large category of behavioural factors. It is not only a question of knowing what is right, but also of being stimulated and involved in virtuous behaviour for our health. But what are good behaviours? Is it enough for us to know that the consumption of fresh food has grown considerably in recent years largely due to the fact that vegetables, legumes and fruits have been associated with many health recommendations. The World Health Organization (WHO/FAO, 2005) recommends a minimum of 400 g of fruit and vegetables per day (excluding potatoes and other starchy tubers) for the prevention of chronic diseases, as well as for the prevention and alleviation of several micronutrient deficiencies, especially in less developed countries.
According to this logic, if I fried and breaded 400 grams of legumes every day – perhaps slightly burnt in palm oil – I would have fulfilled a nutritional recommendation. If I was asked in a healthy survey ‘Do you eat vegetables?’, my answer could be ‘Yes, 400 grams every day’. In other words, the virtuousness of our nutrition lies in a much broader holistic approach involving our experience, and while much has been studied about the nutritional aspects, the same cannot be said about the contextual aspects such as food storage, preparation and cooking. Yet they are at least as important as a proper diet.
A number of studies have explored which cooking systems are able to preserve the nutritional properties of foods that we have come to realise are crucial to our diet.
Some of the current research has focused on the most common methods of cooking: sautéing, microwaving, roasting, boiling, and steaming. Other authors have studied other methods like sous vide, stewing and frying. In order to report the changes caused by various cooking methods, one of the most comprehensive recent study published in International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science selected and analysed some key nutrients for each plant food: glucosinolates and total antioxidant capacity (TAC) for broccoli; TAC and folate for potatoes; quercetin for onions; folate for peas and iron for beans. Besides many possible variables we suggest you explore, steaming seems to be the best method to maintain the nutritional quality (TAC, carotenoids, glucosinolates, sulphorane, folate and phytochemicals) of a food.
Our interest, then, was to explore what meaningful innovation can be introduced in food cooking to help preserve the nutritional qualities, as well as creating a fulfilling experience. What do we mean by “meaningful” innovation? Something that could not only help older adults to live a healthier life, but to also have less impact on the planet. Could we cook using less energy, conserving the food in a practical way which reduces plastic waste, reusing by washing and simplifying the processes? Not to mention that 70% of UK food waste, post farm-gate, comes from our homes. According to Wrap.org.uk a staggering 6.6 million tonnes of food waste comes from our homes each year in the UK, at a cost of £14 billion. Of that, 4.5 million tonnes is food that could have been eaten, which works out at around eight meals per household each week. This ‘edible’ element of household food waste is responsible for 14 million tonnes of Co2 alone – as much greenhouse gas produced as flying from London to Perth more than 4.5 million times.
Born from an idea of Joanna Yuill, Protein Pod is a reusable, re-sealable cooking pod for everyday scratch cooking. It has an in-built steam rack, allowing people to layer a variety of foods and cook them to varying textures. According to Joanna, the Protein Pod allow you to “save money by buying in bulk and use Protein Pod to prep your meals in advance. When you’re ready to cook, simply remove from the fridge and put into a pan of boiling water or into the microwave. Seal and store any leftovers back in the fridge”. Thanks to the Newcastle University Arrow project we started working with Joanna when Protein Pod was just a concept and a very early prototype in February 2020. We supported Protein Pod with market approach, validation and testing. In a traditional market, Protein Pod allows us to change the way we think about preparing, cooking and storing healthy, fresh food. Features such as safe steaming, portion control and reusable packaging makes Protein Pod a useful cooking tool across the generations.
Right now Protein Pod are in the process of planning for prototype number 4, which promises to be even easier to use. In 2020, they were Oi2Lab Open Call Winners and were one of the 36 businesses selected across Europe for ‘boosting business growth through open innovation’. They were also one of a small number of businesses selected for the Pitch Fest programme, a funded offering supporting innovative SMEs to accelerate their progress. More recently, in March 2021 Protein Pod were one of fifteen North East businesses chosen by Super Network NE and Innovation NE BIC for disrupting their sector and making innovative choices. As they emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, there lies a real opportunity for Protein Pod, with more people needing to get organised and prepare healthy meals in advance.
I was signposted to NICA through Newcastle University in February 2020. Since our first meeting to discuss my product Protein Pod, I have taken so much from our collaboration. The NICA team instantly understood the ‘ethos’ behind the brand and could really envisage how the product would benefit multiple demographics, not just on a basic level, but looking beyond that and on a social and environmental one. The team are enthusiastic, passionate, engaging and inspiring. They have brought so much to the development of our pre-launch product, providing much-needed support throughout the challenges of COVID-19. They have enabled momentum to continue with the invaluable research needed to input into product development at this vital time. Not only this but they have linked us in to their international network which will hopefully bring some commercial opportunities in the future. We hope it will be the start of a long-term partnership, working to make lives better in our community and beyond.
 “Perspectives and Theories of Social Innovation for Ageing Population” edited by Andrzej Klimczuk, Łukasz Tomczyk, Frontiers Media SA, – Lousanne, 2020.