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Will Covid-19 change our relationship with food forever?


Authored by Dr Angelika de Bree

Our Global Nutrition Director hopes we will appreciate the value of where and how food is produced, and relish the joy of cooking and eating together. Here she shares her personal views on how the pandemic could change our perspective long-term.

A selection of tomatos

About the author

Dr Angelika de Bree

Dr Angelika de Bree

Global Nutrition Director - Unilevers Foods Innovation Centre in Wageningen

Angelika studied Human Nutrition at Wageningen University and obtained her PhD
in Medical Science at Radboud University, Nijmegen. She joined Unilever in 2004
and lives in Rotterdam with her husband and three sons.

Nobody knows exactly how our society will come out of the Covid-19 crisis. But as a nutritionist, I am particularly interested to see how living through a pandemic can help to establish long-lasting behaviour changes in the way that people choose, prepare, and enjoy products they eat and drink.

These are the three areas that I hope people will grow to appreciate as we move through and beyond this challenging time.

1. The provenance and preciousness of foods

Women harvesting seasonal vegetables in a field

Before the crisis, many people took for granted the advantages of our integrated world, like cheap travel and cheap products. But now it is harder to cross borders, which makes some produce unavailable.

As a global business Unilever is immediately impacted when importing ingredients becomes difficult. While we want to deliver on claims such as ‘made with Italian tomatoes’, we are faced with a reality where this may be difficult for a period of time.

Consumers could soon experience similar impacts in the supermarkets. After the shortage of flour, eggs, and toilet paper in Europe, real scarcity may occur for some fruits and vegetables. For example, due to the pandemic, it will be harder to hire the labour force needed to harvest perishable fruits like strawberries and cherries this year. The same goes for picking asparagus and other crops for which mechanical harvesting is not available.

Hopefully, this crisis can result in an enduring appreciation of where our food comes from, of seasonality and the labour that goes into harvesting it. I am hopeful this will result in wasting less food – a shift which would be hugely beneficial for the planet. According to the UN (PDF | 2.78 MB), if ‘food waste’ globally were a country, it would be the third biggest generator of greenhouse gas emissions, behind China and the USA.

2. The goodness of affordable shelf-stable products

Knorr tomato soup in a glass container and poured into bowls

People are stocking up on products with a long shelf life: packaged soups, seasonings, canned vegetables and pasteurised milk. But some are unsure if these shelf-stable products are as good as fresh produce. The reason for this doubt is that these packaged foods and drinks are often lumped together with foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fats under the denominator of ‘processed foods’.

But classifying all processed foods as unhealthy is too simple. Some processes, like drying and pasteurisation are used to make foods safe, affordable and available the whole year round.

The affordability element will become even more important as it is likely that Covid-19 will cause a global economic recession (according to the International Monetary Fund). This means that consumers all over the world will become more price sensitive. Nutrition experts like myself have a role to play in disseminating the message that some inexpensive shelf-stable products can be good elements of nutritious meals. For example, we have shown that the dried soups that many people have stocked in their pantry, have the same nutritional content as home-made soups.

I hope that people will continue to enjoy the goodness of shelf-stable products after Covid-19. Not only are some nutritious and consistent with a tight budget, they also play a role in preventing food waste. If it weren’t for processing techniques like drying, canning, and freezing, a lot more produce would never even reach the supermarket.

3. Cooking and eating together

An array of fresh vegetables ready for cooking

Online recipe platforms have always been popular, but in these times, people are looking more for nutritious recipes with expert tips and tricks from chefs to turn meals into delicious experiences. They’re also seeking inspiration that brings the food court experience into their home, and guidance to involve kids in the cooking process.

We also see that people want to make the eating experience something special. This is important now as during the day our dining tables function as workstations and crafts or study space for kids. To make the transition, an atmosphere change can help tremendously.

I hope that being ‘forced’ to cook and eat together will bring about lifelong cooking skills. A potential side effect of adults and children getting their hands dirty in the kitchen, is that this will raise the consciousness of what goes into a meal. Ultimately this could result in better dietary choices. Above all, I hope that people will permanently value connecting with their loved ones over a good meal.

The Covid-19 health crisis is terrible. It’s bad for societies, for businesses, for individuals. The real tragedy would be if we come through this pandemic without changing anything for the better.

We all have a role to play in reinforcing changing our habits: people, governments, civil society and businesses. And we all have a stake in the outcome because habits that are good for the health of people are good for the health of the planet.

A slightly longer version of Angelika’s blog was originally published here

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