Involvement in a part, insight into the whole

Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is working on the Smart Food Intake project with industry partners such as Unilever, Philips, Danone and FrieslandCampina, to develop a method of stimulating healthier and more sustainable nutrition. An app is being developed to accompany this method, which will give a better insight into the what, why, where and when of food consumption. The project is to last four years, of which two have already passed. Mariska Dötsch, nutrition expert at Unilever, describes the collaboration.

The unique thing about the app is that in addition to asking questions about food consumption in the previous two hours, it also goes on to ask 'why'.
Mariska Dötsch, nutrition expert at Unilever


This follow-up questioning had not been adequately incorporated into existing tools and apps. You can ask general questions about why people eat certain things, but because this app links the question to a specific moment and motive, the results are more accurate. "The great thing about the Smart Food Intake project is that is targets not just food consumption or the reasons but that it tackles both things at once", explains Dötsch. “We need a tool that can do that efficiently and effectively. We take 'snapshots' of two hours rather than use an app that asks people to retrieve their food consumption over the previous 24 hours. What we find interesting is both the consumption and the motivation behind it, because that informs us in an efficient way about the details of the consumption. For our company, in particular, it is really important to know why people eat certain things. It allows us to respond appropriately."

People are engaged to use the app, for the purpose of data collection. There are enough consumers who are willing to cooperate, but unfortunately those most enthusiastic are less suitable. They are already more aware of their food consumption, with the emphasis on eating healthy.

What you particularly want to know is what the trend is in a cross-section of the population. Which is why the app must be simple and accessible enough for all consumers to be able to work with it.
Mariska Dötsch, nutrition expert at Unilever

Without app

Without an app with which to collect data from consumers, Dötsch's work would look very different. Questionnaires are often carried out through online surveys nowadays, or through marketing agencies or by carrying out studies in which you ask people to use certain products. In those situations, you need a specific group of users and a control group. These are often expensive studies to carry out, also because trained interviewers are needed, for example. In addition, Dötsch uses data from the Dutch Food Consumption Survey to ascertain how the average Dutch person eats, for example, but those data give her no insight into the reasons behind those eating habits.


The project is to last four years, of which two have already passed. The commitment to the project by Dötsch and other experts has led to teaching moments all round. When asked whether there are already results to be seen, Dötsch replies;

It is too early to say what the results are, but as soon as the first case studies take place, we will be able to say whether our objective is a sound one. Looking at the development of the app, I believe it will be an interesting and extremely useful tool to use in the future.

Idea-sharing and collaboration

In this kind of consortium, with various partners and at least as many fields of expertise, it is often a case of striking a compromise in order to keep each other updated and divide the work without incurring too many delays. It always takes time to get accustomed to each other's way of working and adapt a work method accordingly. Wageningen Economic Research has extensive programmes with which to train researchers in this interdisciplinary, collaborative way of working.

Dötsch and her colleagues have had a couple of sessions in which they were updated on the project. Dötsch also collaborated as nutritional expert in the testing of a prototype, in particular on the aspect of consumption. Another colleague was involved in consumer behaviour and provides input, together with WUR, for the aspect of consumer motives while yet another colleague is working on the governance aspect of the project.

Everyone provides a relatively small part, but the project update moments give you the whole.
Mariska Dötsch, nutrition expert at Unilever

Dötsch is particularly concerned with the types of questions and how they are an improvement on existing tools. With an eye to future users, she also looks at ease of use and comprehensibility of the tool. She can help Wageningen Economic Research establish whether the answers given are 'valid', that's to say: answers given to the questions asked mean what they are intended to mean. Her experience with previous tools and methods of asking questions is of great help in this.

Time is set aside during meetings to brainstorm about a specific component. The commitment and expertise of people in the market is a strength that Wageningen Economic Research is only too happy to utilise. Unilever and the other project partners were also asked what they thought would be the most interesting case studies on which to test the prototype, because that way, the parties are directly benefited.

"We exchanged ideas about which case studies should run. We played around with cards to clarify the aspect of motives: how would we personally set up such a question, or which running order would we use? When I received the prototype of the first version of the intake, I got confused carrying out the tasks I had been allotted. The use of the tool was not self-evident enough for me" explains Dötsch.

Achieving insights while not overloading the participants is tricky. Which is why so many different ways of testing are applied, including the input of experts such as Dötsch. If matters are not clear to Dötsch, someone who is involved, then they will probably be unclear for a consumer too. How project staff will continue testing, and on which scale, will become clear by the next meeting in September (2018). Dötsch describes her contribution: "My contribution in the testing of the prototype involved a bit of a double role: as a user on the one hand, but through the eyes of an expert on the other, estimating how someone else would experience it."

The interaction with Wageningen Economic Research was good, although the expertise of Unilever could have been consulted more often. "I would like to see more consultation and more in-depth dialogue. As a company, we have substantial knowledge to offer, and it’s better to share the load," Dötsch says.

Other comments by Dötsch on the collaboration with Wageningen Economic Research:

They really think carefully about how it should be constructed and carry out a great deal of research. They asked specifically what the partners' expectations of the app are and which results they are looking for.

“During the meetings, it is clear to me that a lot of thought has gone into things, and a great many sources have been consulted. We also have a good mix of industry partners. The input provided by a more technological company such as Philips is great, because it contributes by bringing a different type of knowledge to the table than our expertise as a food company. I am very enthusiastic about that aspect.”


Unilever has collaborated a lot with Wageningen University & Research, in particular with the Division of Human Nutrition and Health. There were also already links to Wageningen Economic Research in the area of sustainable food. The various parties seek each other out more frequently. Not only because of the good collaboration, but also because of shared goals and complementary expertise.

This project was realised during a meeting about research infrastructures. During that meeting, it turned out that a number of parties shared a goal of implementing innovation in the area of measuring food intake and motives behind the choice of certain food. In addition, the collaboration between various private and public partners was a priority. Together with these partners and this project, WUR is working on the ambition to promote healthy behaviour in food choices.