Ten years ago I met Laura Fernández Celemín for the first time: A Ph.D. in nutrition, packed with management and leadership skills and a powerful network to advance nutrition. Laura is the Director General of the European Food Information Council (EUFIC). The organization turns complex food and health science into “easy to digest” information for everyone. It is an international non-profit organization, founded 25 years ago, financed primarily through European Union research and innovation funds as well as membership fees. In 2019, 76 % of the funding came from public sources, and 24 % from memberships (food and drinks companies, academia and research organizations, NGOs). I spoke to her about her work.
Prof. Timothy Caulfield wrote a very good article in Nature about the corona 'infodemic'. Where do you see the most nutrition and corona myths spread?
When it comes to the food and nutrition angle of the coronavirus discussion, we see two areas of interest: On the one hand, people are mostly searching for information about the virus to understand how you get infected e.g. what it is, how does it spread, what is the incubation period, can it be transmitted through food, food packaging or animals? On the other, people are looking for “treatments” or “solutions” to reduce their risk to contract the virus or fight it better once caught e.g. can I boost my immune system through foods or supplements, are there any foods that can help cure the disease? We notice that this interest people have comes along with high levels of fear and confusion. This is unfortunately met with an unparalleled amount of misinformation, unscientific myths or magic remedies, answering those questions, and telling people what to eat or drink to thwart the virus – i.e. eat garlic, drink lemon, eat very warm food, avoid meat, etc. Separating facts from fiction is more than ever necessary to protect people and help them understand the role of a healthy diet and lifestyle in helping fight the disease and staying in shape despite the quarantine. Our dietary and lifestyle habits also play a crucial role in the “underlying health issues” that make the consequences of the disease more severe like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or cancer.
You have published various infographics and articles related to Corona - which one is the most shared one?
Our article on “Food and COVID” has become one of the top 3 most visited articles on our website. In fact, it has been viewed 45K times since it was published a few weeks ago! On the other hand, our article “How to keep healthy while in isolation” has been visited 21K times. That goes to show that if you are relevant and timely, people show interest!
"We felt more than ever invited to raise our voice against the damaging advice of pseudoscience." - Laura Fernández
How do you and the team decide which topics you focus on during Corona?
Generally, we choose our topics based on scientific relevance, the importance of public health, the state of the public debate, and the people’s questions online. In this coronavirus pandemic, where stakes are high, we felt more than ever invited to raise our voice against the damaging advice of pseudoscience, we had a role to play and wanted to contribute. We run digital tools that helped us identify which questions people had around this specific topic. Once we knew people’s needs about the coronavirus, we focussed on creating relevant content to address them. For that, we looked into the information shared by the relevant institutions in the fields of nutrition, health, and food safety, the likes of the WHO, FAO, ECDC, or EFSA, but also national authorities. We also made sure that any latest relevant science was taken into account.
Which topics do you usually focus on?
We write about many different topics and these can change from year to year. Every year, we do our best to find a balance between what people are interested in e.g. sustainability is a hot topic, and what is important for public health but may not be as “hip” e.g. micronutrients deficiencies. So far, we could squeeze in the Corona package without disrupting too much our annual plan and we may need to postpone other articles towards the end of the year. Our process includes an analysis of what people are interested in while keeping a keen look at the scientific discussion – at the newest findings, but also at the changes in the established consensus-, as well as at the topics relevant for public health institutions and other stakeholders. During this and last year, we have been covering the topic of food-based dietary guidelines – very much in focus for organizations such as FENS and FAO – explaining to people what food pyramids are, how they are created, how should they be used, helping them understand the science of macro and micronutrients, making also sure that the aspects of food safety and sustainability always come across. As the discussion goes on, it is not unlikely that our next focus will be on sustainable foods, diets, and systems in general, but a detailed analysis is still to be undertaken.
What is your professional mission?
My background is in dietetics and nutrition, which reflects my underlying love for health, food, eating, and my belief that food is what brings people together and can change the world. I am originally from Spain, where I started law studies, to move then to Brussels, Belgium, to follow my true nature by completing a degree in human nutrition and a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences with nutrition orientation. My professional mission is to be the change I would like to see in the world: If people would understand through engaging and actionable information, the importance of food and nutrition, they will improve their own lives and those of others around them. I want to inspire and develop the people that work with me while contributing to make the world a healthier place.
Who is your role model and how does it inspire you?
I get inspirations from different role models, most often women that have helped change the world, like Florence Nightingale, Helen Keller, Malala Yousafzai, and many others. They all share strong values, an indomitable will to change the world into a better place and a passion for education and science.
And lastly: Who are the people working at EUFIC?
Our team consists of 31 science and communication experts who share the organization’s purpose and are driven by principles of scientific accuracy, integrity, and accessibility. I love the mix of sixteen different nationalities, of various ages - gen X, millennials and gen Z - and the range of expertise in nutrition, health, food science and technology, social and behavioral sciences, graphic design, media, and communication. This mix allows us to have a very rich approach and adapt our communications and activities to the current reality and needs of people.
This interview was carried out by Simone K. Frey.