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On Monday, March 20, a warm round of applause greeted the chairman and former CEO of Nestlé, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, to the stage of CosmoCaixa Barcelona. Press, dignitaries and students alike had all journeyed to the neighborhood of Sarriá to be a part of the first EU Business School Barcelona Live Event.
Hot off the launch of his new book, Nutrition for a Better Life: A Journey from the Origins of Industrial Food Production to Nutrigenomics, Brabeck-Letmathe literally flew himself to Barcelona to talk about nutrition, health and the impact of the food and beverage industry. From the beginnings of food and cooking, the chairman took us right up to modern technological innovations that use nutrition to slow down the aging process and fight chronic disease. Brabeck-Letmathe also spoke about the role genetics play in health and how research is uncovering how and what we should eat.
Fact: Nutrigenomics is the scientific study of the relationship between human genomes and nutrition.
Learning how to cook
To start with, Brabeck-Letmathe described the beginnings of food history and preparation:
“Before the food industry was really born, due to a very limited shelf life, most food was locally produced and there were only very few products...and there was a limited usage of preservatives in order to keep the products longer. This was basically salt and sugar. If you think about bacalao, very famous here in Spain. It’s a salted fish. Why…? Because otherwise, it would have arrived rotten from the ship… And sugar because if you think about marmalades and jams and all of that stuff. What are you doing? You’re adding sugar in order to preserve it. As a consequence, most food production was for home consumption.”
Back then, a city or town really relied on the resources surrounding it.
“The organization (of food production) was limited, basically, to the number of people that could be fed by the farmers…who brought, in the morning, on an ox cart, their fresh products to the market. And that was in a radius of about 15 kilometers.”
“A city could only be as big as the farmers could provide food for.”
It’s safe to say that things were a little different back then.
“The life expectancy in Europe in the 1800s was 30”
Thanks to an increase in calorie intake and healthier food choices, life expectancy rose drastically in the 1800s to 1900s. At this stage, the food industry had one main goal: deliver as many calories as possible.
When Brabeck-Letmathe was announced CEO of Nestlé in 1995 this became food for thought.
Eating more than we need
“I had a look around and I was trying to find out what is happening in our industry. And then, I realized that there was suddenly a change… for the very first time, if you gave more calories to your consumer, life expectancy did not increase. It was even going down. This changed the rules of the game completely. For a full industry, very, very few people, I must say, became aware of this paradigm change.
For a company like ours… I said from the very beginning (that) our task now, is to change from a quantitative approach, which was even more calories at a lower price, so that more people can have access to it, to a qualitative approach, where we have to sell better calories. This is the reason why…I wanted to move the company from a food and beverage company into a nutrition, health and wellness company.”
In sickness and in health
“I always quote, we don’t have a healthcare system, we have a sickness care system. Because it only starts to care when you’re sick.”
“As long as you’re healthy, you’re never part of the healthcare system… in order to overcome this, we will have to talk more about how we keep people healthy in the longer term… it’s very much about strengthening and extending the role of science-based personalized resource efficient and sustainable nutrition to further advance towards the goal for people to live a long and healthy life… this cannot be done by the food industry alone. It needs a medical part of it, it needs politics.”
The relationship between chronic disease with diet and nutrition is particularly interesting to Brabeck-Letmathe and Nestlé. Chronicling the internal and external factors of chronic diseases: diet, environment and lifestyle versus genetics, age and metabolism, he shared some insights on biology that will stick with us for a while.
“We have about two and a half kilos of bacteria which we are carrying in our digestive system and we have about 750 grams of bacteria on our skin which we all have to feed. What we are learning now, more and more is, that those bacteria have a much bigger influence on our brain than we ever would have thought. So, many people are becoming, for example overweight, not because they don’t have the mental will in order not to eat, but they are being demanded by their bacteria in the stomach that wants to get more of this and this and this food. So this is a completely new area that we are starting to understand better and better.”
“Chronic disease… has overtaken cancer as the number one killer.”
Moving towards health and sustainability
“We see the role of a nutrition, health and wellness company predominantly in the area of promotion of health and the prevention of disease… I think the only way that we have a sustainable health system in the future is preventing becoming sick. In order to do that we have to understand more about the life science part of our bodies. Therefore we have created the new life science research center. The objective of which is the understanding and modeling of health through the creation of biological relationships… to illustrate the continuum of health to disease. “
“I am absolutely convinced that the way we are producing food today is not sustainable.”
“Yes, for a big part of the population, we have enough calories. But there are still about 1 billion people out there who are living like we were in the 1800s. That do not have enough calories. We also have to get them to the level to get sufficient calories… (But) our agricultural system requires too many resources… we are using the resources of four planets and this cannot go on.”
Water is our most important resource
“The most important resource is water. And agriculture uses about 90% of all water that is being used by all humankind. It withdraws more than 70% but it uses over 90%. For example, energy, which withdraws about 15% gives a big part of this water back afterward. ” We are today withdrawing 30% more water than what is sustainable..underground water reserves are going down at an alarming rate.”