Professor Denise de Ridder (left) and alderman Victor Everhardt (right) at the opening of Van Taartjes

University broadens selection of healthy snacks at Utrecht Central Station

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Whoever thought that healthy and tasty are incompatible, may need to revise their ideas. Visitors at the central station in Utrecht can test this themselves in the coming months. Fruit and vegetable snacks are now for sale on the initiative of UU health psychologists.

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The ‘Van Taartjes’ food truck sells fruit and vegetable tarts at the central station. For €2,50 each. It is an attempt to make people eat healthier, says Professor Denise de Ridder, who heads the Self-Regulation Lab at Utrecht University.

“In psychological literature there is talk about the obesogenic environment. You should arm people against that. We do research into how you can teach people to ignore temptations. But we find it almost unjust to place all of that responsibility with the individual. In an environment where there are only fat, salty bites, you can't blame people for going for the unhealthy option.”

The area to which De Ridder refers is Utrecht Central Station. When it was determined that this area was the place where the target group of their research comes a lot, and healthy food was not exactly there for the taking, the idea was born: a pop-up booth with healthy snacks. The plan was submitted to the municipality. They thought it was a good idea. Then the next challenge came up: to come up with something healthy and delicious.

“People think that healthy eating is not tasty,” de Ridder explains. “It took us a year to come up with something together with all kinds of partners. We are not nutritionists ourselves, we have outsourced this to a food consultancy that has devised and branded the concept. “They perfected the recipe with various chefs. The result of the search for the perfect snacks - a search that lasted almost a year - is an apple-based cake and one filled with ratatouille, for €2.50 each. Together with Caroline Schlinkert, De Ridder is at the cradle of the experiment. In addition, they work with a nutritional epidemiologist and a psychologist. They also collaborated with a social geographer. They determined where the target group often comes in Utrecht.

The preliminary research for this project was conducted in Transwijk and Kanaleneiland. Why there?
We wanted to focus on disadvantaged neighbourhoods, where people eat unhealthier than in neighbourhoods where people are highly educated. That's why the geographer worked with GPS tracking: where are the people from these neighbourhoods going? We did not go to Kanaleneiland with the food car, because it turned out that people who live there were leaving the neighbourhood to go to school and work. People who stay in the neighbourhood buy something in the supermarket and go home again. That is why we have chosen Utrecht Central as the ‘epicentre’ for our project.”

What are you fighting against?
“We know that many people are overweight. More than 50 percent in the Netherlands. These people indicate that they want to eat healthier, but they are not successful. Because it is very difficult to always eat healthy if you are surrounded by shawarma, fries, and cakes. Our research wants to show that if you create a healthy environment, it becomes easier for people to make a healthy choice. We enable people to act according to what they find important themselves.”

Is a person such a plaything of his surroundings?
“I would not say that mankind is a toy. But the literature talks about motivation and opportunity. You must be motivated, but also have the opportunity. You see that even if people are genuinely motivated, they still do not succeed in doing what they want. Sometimes they are unrealistic, they do not plan enough. Someone may have the motivation in the morning to eat healthy that day, but if they come out of a long meeting after a day they will not have that motivation anymore. Many people overestimate their willpower, and only let this factor matter. Willpower is a great means, but not the best strategy to change your life.”

What is the best strategy then?
“Installing smart routines. Even strong-willed people get tired at some point or are not fully focused all the time. Then that will power disappears. It is much better to ensure that you are not tempted, instead of the idea: ‘I have to be strong and I’ll see what happens.’ Then things often go wrong.”

At a place like the AH To Go you not only have cheese sandwiches but fruit salads, whole-grain sandwiches and healthy sandwiches as well?
“I don't go to the AH to go very often. But a journalist from the NRC who interviewed me had been there and found that there were indeed apples. That is already a big step. But then you first have to walk past the shelf with chocolate Easter eggs. We have done research at the kiosks of NS. There were many complaints about this because there were not enough healthy options. Then they started selling apples, but they were shrivelling somewhere on a shelf three stories high. Then we placed healthy snacks at the cash register, where people make impulse purchases. Then it will be bought.”

Is fighting with fats and sugars not a battle lost in advance?
“There is unfair competition currently. When it comes down to this project in the media, people often talk about: ‘Apple versus croquette - who wins?’ Then naturally the croquette wins. But if you make a fruit salad from an apple, people will find it more attractive. Then the competition is fairer”

What do you hope to achieve in the end?
“We hope that if people get the opportunity to buy a healthier snack, they will do that. And we hope that this will change their attitude towards healthy food, and that they will start eating in other places as well. And that they are not going to compensate for our cake with a croquette, if that happens it will have completely failed.”

What does your ideal Utrecht Central station look like? Should there be a certain percentage of "healthy" food providers?
“I don't think we should have a fat or fries-free station. But there must be a real selection of healthy products. Research recently revealed that there was an increase in the station area of 40 percent of places that sell unhealthy snacks. I think the municipality should strive for a proportionate supply of healthy and less healthy food.”

Do you have a guilty pleasure in food?
Laughing: “I'm a bit of an evening eater, so I have to be careful that just before I go to bed I don't reward myself with a piece of cheese.”

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