Customizing food for health with Annelies Hermsen

Whenever we think of hospital food, chances are big that an image of a mushy, shapeless mass will come to mind first. Not very appetizing. But when fighting illness or during recovery, obtaining your daily intake of required nutrients is a must. That is why the department of oncology in the Radboud University Medical Center (UMC) in Nijmegen reached out to food designer Annelies Hermsen for help. Her assignment- to come up with a new food concept for the young adults in the oncology ward.

Type Update
Published on 14 October 2021
Part of Embassy of Food
Customizing food for health with Annelies Hermsen
Part of Embassy of Food

The assignment was formulated out of the urgency that when dealing with cancer, there are countless severe side-effects due to radiation and chemotherapy. One of them is change and reduction of appetite. Taste and smell can be distorted and eating meals – especially in large quantities- becomes a problem. In order to still meet the daily requirements of calories and proteins, Annelies tinkered with the current food culture in the oncology department. As a result, she designed a food concept for a successful pilot that led to the ongoing project Food For Care. This didn’t only change the quality of life of the patients but also changed the entire way of food presentation in the hospital.

Annelies conducted an extensive research which consisted of many conversations and interviews with patients, doctors and nutrition assistants. This created a clear image of what was taking place in the ward and what problems the patients were facing. She found out that the problem was complex; there was a lot of diversity in the symptoms. Some of the patients didn’t tolerate certain food anymore or were very sensitive to specific smells. The location of radiation also played a major role: radiation in the throat area had a different effect on the patients with radiation in the area of the legs. “Radiation in the legs makes you unable to stomach citric foods since they are very acidic and corrosive.” There also seemed to be difficulties with the size of the portions served three times a day. The patients weren’t interested in the traditional three large meals a day structure at all.

Based on this, Annelies designed a food concept that revolved around the reduction of the portions that were originally served. To ensure that the portions still contained the correct amount of calories and proteins, the number of meals were increased. Instead of three large meals a day, the concept consisted of seven small courses that were offered at different set times of the day. The food designer also made sure that every course offered a selection of dishes, so every patient was given the choice to pick something to their liking.

The pilot’s programme was a success. The patients were satisfied with the new way of serving dishes and the ability to pick their own meals. But in addition to the positive replies by the patients, science also had a positive message. Scientific research showed that the participants of the pilot ultimately needed less medication. In particular, the usage of the anti-nausea medication decreased significantly. By carefully looking at the patients’ clinical picture and their needs, a personalized diet that is beneficial to their recovery can be put together.

Now, a few years after the successful conclusion of the pilot, the food concept has been rolled out further into a hospital-wide concept under the name Food For Care. The portfolio of recipes has grown considerably and now contains no less than a few thousand dishes. A different ‘menu’ has been composed for each department, focusing on different food groups or nutritional values. Presentation also plays a major role here. Food For Care continues to practice this combination of gastronomy and personal preference, which offers a fresh perspective on the future of hospital catering and demonstrates the importance of personalized nutrition.

Read the whole article written by Ruben Baart from Next Nature Network here. And come visit the Supermarket of the Future in the Embassy of Food during Dutch Design Week 2021, where Annelies’s prototypes and stories are on show.  

This interview came about as part of the Embassy of Food 2021, one of the World Design Embassies. Curators Annelies Hermsen and Chloé Rutzerveld researched seven projects within seven themes and interviewed designers about technology, food waste, health, education, protein transition, non-food and packaging. Ruben Baart of Next Nature Network turned the interviews into articles.

The Embassy of Food is made possible in part by the DOEN Foundation, Prince Bernhard Cultuurfonds, Albert Heijn and the Dutch Design Foundation.

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