Science - September 9, 2004

Chile comes to Wageningen

A delegation of nutritional scientists from Chile visited Wageningen UR this week. They came to discuss the possibility of setting up projects together.

‘The European Union is interested in involving developing countries like Chile in the sixth framework programme,’ tells Dr Gijs Kleter of the food safety research institute Rikilt, who organised the visit. ‘However, interest from non-EU countries has declined recently. Therefore an EU delegation visited Chile this summer, and the result is that the Chileans are now here in Wageningen.’

Kleter comments that many people do not realise that Brussels has money available for scientific cooperation with countries outside the EU, and adds that Chiles is particularly interesting for nutritional scientists. ‘In Chile all schoolchildren get a meal provided at school,’ he explains. ‘The system also tracks the children’s health, which means it is possible to carry out intervention studies there.’

Obesity

The Chilean delegation was led by Dr Fernando Vio, the director of the Institute of Nutrition and Food Technology. ‘Chile really needs to work with other countries in the fields of nutrition and nutritional technology,’ he says. ‘That’s why we are here. We regard Wageningen as the European centre of nutritional research.’ The biggest problem facing Chile at the moment is the obesity epidemic continues Vio. ‘Until the 1980s malnutrition was a major problem, but fortunately that is no longer the case. Now, however, we are experiencing spectacular growth in the numbers of people who are too fat.’

In 1987 only eight percent of schoolchildren were so fat that it posed a risk to their health. By 2000 this figure had risen to seventeen percent. Mothers have also become heavier. While in 1987 only twelve percent of mothers were overweight, this figure had reached 32 percent by 2000. ‘Last year we gathered figures for the whole population,’ continues Vio. ‘Now we can see that sixty percent of all Chileans are too fat, not far behind the US, where 64 percent of the population is overweight.’

Lifestyle

Vio believes that the cause of the problem is the Western lifestyle, which Chileans have adopted wholeheartedly. ‘We eat increasing amounts of junk food, so the amount of sugar, fat and salt we consume is rising,’ he sums up. ‘And we get less and less exercise. Chilean children spend about three hours a day watching television. Less than ten percent of the population gets enough exercise.’

Chile now needs help in setting up its nutritional research programme says Vio. The research has to come up with suggestions that the government can use to improve the situation. ‘Of course there are other problems as well,’ says the director. ‘There is room for improvement in all aspects of the quality of our nutrition. Nutritional value, food safety as well as colourings and taste. These are all areas where we would like to cooperate with Wageningen. And of course we want better nutritional guidelines, and we hope to learn how to go about developing these here.’

For now, the next step is to write joint research proposals that include Wageningen and Chilean researchers for submission to the sixth framework programme in Brussels. /WK

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