On Sept. 17, 2020 Vital Strategies convened leading food policy experts to ask them: “What’s in Our Food?” With more than 2 billion people overweight or obese globally, and the COVID-19 pandemic revealing deep structural inequities in food environments, the push to improve nutrition and combat obesity has become more urgent than ever. Our speakers discussed some of the most promising and effective food policies, including front-of-package labeling initiatives, critical perspectives on the increased vulnerabilities to COVID-19 for people living with obesity and undernutrition, and guidance to governments and stakeholders engaged in this issue. This event coincided with the launch of Vital Strategies new front-of-package labeling guidebook: https://www.vitalstrategies.org/resources/whats-in-our-food/
In her opening remarks, Princess Dina Mired noted one-third of the world’s population was overweight or obese, and that undernutrition and obesity are often opposite sides of the same coin. “Food environments determine food security, and also strongly influence consumer behavior including encouragement to over-consume calories. It is people’s right to have a food environment that fosters their well-being and not their vulnerability to non-communicable disease,” said Princess Dina.
Jo Jewell, Nutrition Specialist at UNICEF pointed to the many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has brought food insecurity, obesity, and malnutrition to the forefront of discussion. Enforced lockdowns and school shutdowns have especially led to risks in children’s nutritional status and survival. Although limited, emerging studies show that snacking and junk food consumption is being impacted during the pandemic. However, as Jewell explains, “The availability and affordability of healthy food are being threatened, we need to look at the solutions, how do we make sure retailers are offering healthy food, how do we make sure they are safe?”
Professor Barry Popkin, Global Food Research Program at UNC shared alarming results from his regarding the link between COVID-19 and obesity. The study found obese individuals testing positive for COVID-19 are 113% more likely to be hospitalized, 74% more likely to be admitted in the ICU, and 48% more likely to die from COVID-19.
Additionally, Popkin’s research shows the economic consequences of the pandemic have significantly increased the consumption of processed foods. Global and local food companies across the globe are giving out junk food under the disguise of “helping feed the poor.” Professor Popkin urged governments to consider “how now and in the future, they can create impactful food policies to make healthy food less expensive and more accessible.”
Nandita Murukutla, Vice President for Global Policy and Research at Vital Strategies discussed the from Vital Strategies and the University of Chapel Hill. Marketers use valuable front of label packaging to manipulate customers into choosing products that are disguised as healthy and nutritious. Alternatively, the same techniques used by marketers can be used by food policy experts to warn people of ultra-processed, unhealthy foods. Murukutla expressed the success of smart labeling regulations stating, “Our new guidebook will help countries develop smart strategies to use front-of-package space for visible and clearly understood nutrient warning labels that help consumers avoid unhealthy purchases and, ultimately, lead to healthier populations.”
Fabio da Silva Gomez, Regional Advisor on Nutrition and Physical Activity at PAHO revealed several countries in Latin America had successfully implemented these policies and lessons. Perhaps one of the greatest successes of front-of-package labeling initiatives comes from Chile, where 40-50% of food marketing has been reduced with the introduction of marketing regulations and processes. In addition to changing food environment and restricting marketers’ influence, da Silva Gomez added, “Healthy food that we promote must be affordable, and we need to reduce the affordability of foods that have unhealthy nutrients.”
Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health explained the importance of equitable and inclusive front-of-package labeling initiatives and food policy. Front-of-package labeling initiatives must consider indigenous and minority languages in addition to the dominant language. Food policy must include young people not just in schooling and education but also those who are not, the quality of food availability for individuals in health care facilities, and the relationship between unhealthy food production, climate change, migration, and land. Dr. T emphasized that comprehensive food policy must begin with our most vulnerable and that, “By starting with what it takes to make the most vulnerable among us thrive, we can build healthier and more just societies. We will have succeeded if all of our efforts and solutions are centered around the restoration of dignity, ending poverty and malnutrition, and, of course, protecting and promoting the realization of the rights of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental well-being.”
Dr. Neena Prasad of Bloomberg Philanthropies moderated the event. Dr. Neena urged audience members to think deeply about terminology used when discussing obesity and undernutrition. She stated “If I could just make one plea to our community, it’s to stop using the terminology lifestyle diseases because, as you said, it puts blame and responsibility on the wrong entity which is people, individual people and removes blame from our food environments and the corporate determinants of health and our neoliberal policies and so on that create the conditions for people, you know, being unhealthy.”
To view the full recording of the September 17 VitalTalks, vitalstrategies.org/vital-talks
To learn more and download the front-of-package labeling guidebook visit: https://www.vitalstrategies.org/resources/whats-in-our-food/
About Vital Talks
VitalTalks brings together leading voices from diverse fields to discuss today’s most pressing public health challenges. The speaker series examines today’s often-overlooked drivers of poor health and the factors that get in the way of people’s access to—and experience of—a long, productive, and healthy life. Join us as we elevate bold ideas and innovative solutions, working for a world where everyone, everywhere is protected by a strong public health system. #VitalTalks #ReimaginingPublicHealth
For more information, visit: https://www.vitalstrategies.org/vitaltalks/