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Our dominant food system is a primary driver of worsening human and planetary health. Held in March 2022, the Public Health Association of Australia’s Food Futures Conference was an opportunity for people working across the food system to connect and advocate for a comprehensive, intersectoral, whole-of-society food and nutrition policy in Australia to attenuate these issues. Conference themes included food systems for local and global good; ecological nutrition; social mobilisation for planetary and public good; food sovereignty and food equity. Students and young professionals are integral in transforming food systems, yet they are under-represented in the academic workforce, across publishing, scientific societies and conference plenaries. A satellite event was held to platform initiatives from early career researchers (ECR) in areas integral for improving planetary and public good. The research topics discussed in this commentary reflect sub-themes of the conference under investigation by ECR: food systems governance and regulation; local food policies; commercial determinants of health; sustainable healthy diets; and food equity and sovereignty.
Dietary advice about the potential health risks of unhealthy foods or diets has historically been communicated in terms of nutrients. Recent evidence has shown that the processing of food itself is independently attributable to harmful outcomes, particularly a new category of foods described to be ‘ultra-processed’. Dietary guidelines (DG) are a key policy tool to translate and communicate nutrition research; however, there is little research exploring whether and how the harms of food processing are communicated and rationalised in dietary advice.
Nineteen publicly available DG were thematically analysed to explore: (1) the diversity of terms used to refer to processed foods and (2) the underlying explanations and rationales provided to reduce consumption of processed foods.
Sample of national dietary guidelines.
Seventeen different descriptive terms were used to refer to processed foods, with many countries using a large variation of terms within their DG. Six rationales to reduce consumption of processed foods were identified, which were grouped into four overarching domains: harmful outcomes (disease risk, environmental risk); food quality (food quality, nutrient content); diet quality and food environment.
The rationales provided to reduce the consumption of processed foods reflect upstream and downstream determinants of health. However, the persistence of nutrient-based rationales indicate that most DG do not apply an upstream understanding of the issues with ultra-processing. Further, the diversity of terms and foods referenced in DG suggest that the concept of ultra-processing is subject to multiple interpretations.
To explore how some of the largest food companies involved in producing alternative proteins (AP) use health and nutrition claims to market their products.
We identified the largest food manufacturers, meat processors and AP companies selling plant-based AP products in the USA. Using publicly available data, we analysed the voluntary health and nutrition claims made on front-of-pack labels (FOPL) and company webpages. We also analysed company websites for further nutrition and health-related statements about their products or AP more generally. Claim classification was guided by the INFORMAS (International Network for Food and Obesity/Non-Communicable Diseases Research, Monitoring, and Action Support) taxonomy for health-related food labelling.
1394 health and nutrition-related FOPL claims were identified on 216 products, including 685 nutrition claims and 709 ‘other health-related’ claims. No FOPL health claims were identified. Most nutrient claims were for nutrients associated with meat, with 94 % of products carrying a protein claim and 30 % carrying a cholesterol claim. 74 % of products carried a GMO-free claim, and 63 % carried a plant-based claim. On their websites, some companies expanded on these claims or discussed the health benefits of specific ingredients.
Companies involved in this category appear to be using nutritional marketing primarily to position their products in relation to meat. There is a focus on nutrient and ingredient claims, with discussion of processing largely avoided. The findings highlight the challenges companies face in positioning AP products as healthy against the backdrop of debates about ultra-processed foods.
To analyse the evolution of the soft drink industry’s use of self-regulation as a response to obesity and examine the motivations driving its development and the strategies used to promote it to policy makers.
We used a data set of industry documents published by the Australian Beverages Council (ABC) between 1998 and 2016. We analysed how the ABC voiced its political motivations about self-regulation and what internal nutrition policies it developed prior to its public launch of self-regulation. We also analysed two promotional strategies: funding research and writing policy submissions.
Between 1998 and 2006, the ABC shifted from a defensive strategy that denied the role of its products in obesity to more conciliatory strategy that emphasised the role of the soft drink industry in solutions to obesity. The ABC deliberately timed the launch of its self-regulation to coincide with an international public health congress. Following its launch, the ABC funded research demonstrating the efficacy of self-regulation and wrote submissions to government nutrition policies arguing that further regulation was unnecessary.
The soft drink industry uses self-regulation to bolster its reputation and influence nutrition policy. Strategic timing plays a key role in the political influence of self-regulation.
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