Food systems are major determinants of food quality and choices and, as a result, nutritional status and health. The private sector is the engine that drives food systems, with the food and beverage industry having a disproportional impact on nutrition and health outcomes as the “nutrition transition” in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) has shown, with increased consumption of sugar, fats, refined grains, and highly processed food.
Tipping the Scale: Engaging the Food and Beverage Sector for Societal Health
Despite progress in recent years, malnutrition remains a leading global challenge. Most countries face a serious burden of at least two of the three forms of malnutrition – undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overweight/obesity (1). Central to the challenges of and solutions to malnutrition are food systems. Food systems are major determinants of food quality and choices and hence nutritional status and health.
The private sector is the engine that drives food systems, with the food and beverage (F&B) industry having a disproportional impact on nutrition and health outcomes as the “nutrition transition” in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) has shown, with increased consumption of sugar, fats, refined grains and highly processed foods (2). In LMICs, F&B products represent a growing share of local diets, driven by urbanization, rising incomes, maturing supply chains, and increasing demand for processed foods due to their convenience and shelf life.
The obesity epidemic
The associated global obesity epidemic now engulfing developed countries and LMICs alike, costs the world an estimated $2 trillion annually (3,4). Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) account for 68 percent of all deaths worldwide, with three of the four most prevalent ones – cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and diabetes – being associated with diets (5). The global community has reached a tipping point with the accumulating evidence on the global and serious nature of overweight and obesity and their major contribution to the increasing burden of NCDs and premature death. Urgent, comprehensive and systematic action is needed to reverse this tide.
Together with consumer choices and lifestyles, the F&B sector’s influence on these trends and burden is preeminent. Moreover, there have been missed opportunities for industry to contribute to reducing undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. The ATNI Global Index 2018 highlights that less than a third of more than 23,000 products marketed by the top F&B companies in the world can be classified as healthy (6). Only five out of 18 surveyed F&B giants have shown commitment to marketing strategies aimed at reaching undernourished populations.
Five initiatives to create change
Five key initiatives can be employed by society to improve the F&B sector’s contribution to nutrition, including:
- A favorable enabling environment
- Consumer education and demand
- Safety net procurement
- Direct pressure and accountability from consumers, grassroots organizations, high-value employees and investors.
Incentives through various policies can be strong inducers of positive action by private sector actors. Tax policy can both incentivize availability of affordable nutritious foods and discourage production and consumption of nutrient-poor foods. A favorable enabling environment, led by the public sector, can reward F&B players that contribute to public health and discourage or penalize those that don’t contribute positively.
The voice of society
Consumer education and demand can pull the whole food value chain toward sustainable diets and compel companies to offer a nutritious, sustainable and ethical product portfolio. The clean label movement in high-income countries illustrates the power of consumers to catalyze industry shifts (7). As institutional buyers such as national governments and multilateral agencies step in to ensure the most vulnerable are covered, they contribute to the viability and sustainability of nutrition-minded companies. The voice of society through various actors and channels can both inhibit the most egregious corporate actions in the short term and promote long-term steering and investment in a nutrition-positive direction. An auspiciously growing trend are right-minded nudges on firms from large individual and institutional investors.
Improvements to date
Several industry initiatives and public-private partnerships have contributed to improving nutrition through product reformulation, improved labeling standards, responsible marketing and disincentives to consumption of unhealthy products. In LMICs, these efforts have concentrated on food safety or food fortification.
Today, LMICs grapple with the full spectrum of malnutrition challenges – a persistent burden of undernutrition combined with increasing overweight and obesity. The aforementioned tipping point of awareness may represent a leapfrogging opportunity for LMICs as their food systems and F&B sectors mature and can better align their strategy and investments with societal needs, thus avoiding the burden this misalignment has imposed elsewhere. Key to this alignment is a systemic approach that encompasses all three modalities of malnutrition, includes actions that promote the consumption of nutritious foods and reduce that of nutrient-poor products, and addresses the areas in which F&B companies can make a difference: product portfolio and labeling, marketing communications and practices, and availability and affordability for low-income consumers.
Aligning the F&B sector with societal needs is an overdue journey which will benefit all individuals in all countries, as consumers, suppliers, employees or shareholders, as well as the planet. Let’s embark on this ride together – a healthier, happier and more sustainable world awaits us and our descendants.
Follow NUTRI-FACTS on Facebook @Understanding.vitamins to stay updated on the latest nutrition news and expert commentary.