Could healthy food targets imposed on supermarkets help to reduce obesity rates? – FoodNavigator.com

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Rising obesity levels continue to cause major concern for governments across the globe, with figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) showing that 1 in 8 people in the world are living with obesity. Furthermore, worldwide adult obesity levels have more than doubled since 1990.

As a result of this sharp increase, governments are searching for ways to combat poor diets and move towards healthier societies.

Why is obesity a health epidemic?

Obesity is typically categorised by a body mass index (BMI) of over 30. However other factors, such as waist circumference, must also be considered. It has been linked to a number of serious health issues, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders such as osteoarthritis, and endometrial, breast and colon cancer.

“If immediate action is not taken, millions will suffer from an array of serious health disorders,” said a spokesperson for the WHO.

Could healthy food targets help to tackle obesity?

Governments are implementing a variety of methods to tackle obesity and have had varying levels of success. FoodNavigator recently reported on the taxation of so-called unhealthy foods​ as one potential method of lowering obesity rates amongst citizens.

Now a new study carried out by innovation policy campaign group, Nesta, and backed by UK consumer group, Which, has found that imposing mandatory health food targets on large retailers could help to reduce obesity.

The policy is designed to incentivise retailers to offer healthier food options, discouraging business models that rely on pushing people towards foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

“Mandatory food targets would be an innovative way to harness the competitive drive of the market to encourage supermarkets to find ways to help us eat more healthily,” says Aveek Bhattacharya, director of the Social Market Foundation (SMF). “As things stand, retailers are incentivised to sell unhealthy products – and they have been demonstrably successful in doing so. Well-designed targets can flip that around, giving supermarkets more powerful incentives to experiment and find the best ways to ensure people’s food is nutritious as well as affordable. That, in turn, could lead to meaningful improvements in our health – increasing our productivity, raising our wellbeing and, ultimately, saving lives.”

Healthy food targets - 1 - GettyImages-alvarez
Could healthy food targets imposed on supermarkets help to reduce obesity rates? GettyImages/alvarez

Nesta believes that by setting a target healthiness score for the market as a whole, retailers would be incentivised to make it easy for people to choose healthy options. It could also encourage retailers to reformulate their product ranges, reducing the levels of fat, sugar and salt.

“The evidence shows that pushing the onus on the individual to make changes doesn’t work – obesity has doubled since the 90s. That’s not because we have less willpower than we did 25 years ago. What’s changed is what is sold and marketed to us – it’s just harder to be healthy,” says Hugo Harper, director of Nesta’s health team. “Supermarkets are not the enemy in this story. If we incentivise retailers to work with us to make food healthier then that’s a massive win for public health.”

The policy is based on a market-based mechanism, commonly used in environmental and climate policy. It sets an industry-wide goal, but gives each supermarket the flexibility to choose their own tactics in order to meet the target, while also keeping down the cost of a basket of food. 

Looking specifically at the UK, the research team calculated appropriate health targets, to determine the healthiness of foods sold across the UK’s 11 leading supermarkets. They analysed 36 million transactions from 30,000 households and used a converted form of the Nutrient Profile model, widely used in public health and industry, to score purchases between 1 (least healthy) and 100 (most healthy). The average healthiness score of a shopping basket was 67.

They modelled the effect on obesity, showing that an improvement in the average score of just two points, from 67 to 69, would cut obesity by approximately 23% over three years.

The team then commissioned independent economist, Daniel Gordon, to understand the financial impact these healthy food targets could have.

“The target should not have a significant impact on costs of consumers shopping, either in terms of the prices in stores, or by causing them to switch to higher price products,” explains Mr Gordon. “Competition between supermarkets will lead them to find ways to meet the target that will be best-received by their customers, both in terms of choice of the products they offer, and the cost of their shopping. Set against the very large benefits of reducing obesity and recognising the pivotal role that large grocery retailers play in shaping the nation’s diet, there is a compelling case for this policy to be seriously considered.”

Healthy food targets - 2 -GettyImages-Yana Tatevosian
Could healthy food targets imposed on supermarkets help to reduce obesity rates? GettyImages/Yana Tatevosian

Could healthy food targets also help to reduce malnutrition

In addition to reducing obesity, these health food targets could also help consumers to choose nutrient-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables, as opposed to less healthy foods, such as those high in fat, sugar and salt.

It is a common misconception that people who are overweight and obese are well nourished. Though people who are obese may be eating large quantities of food, the foods consumed may be lacking in nutrition.

“Malnutrition refers to deficiencies or excesses in nutrient intake, imbalance of essential nutrients or impaired nutrient utilisation. The double burden of malnutrition consists of both undernutrition and overweight and obesity, said a spokesperson for the WHO.

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