International Forum Signals Change Ahead

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The International Forum on Food & Nutrition held in New York on 28 September, at the end of a week that saw the city host the UN General Assembly and the World Economic Forum, provided a platform for leaders shaping the future of food to share their vision, current challenges and recommended actions. 

Just like the global economy influences local investment decisions, remaining informed of global changes in food and nutrition research and policy, and connecting this information with local strategy is critical for those looking to remain well positioned for the future.

Of the many presentations throughout the day, the one that struck me the most was that by Dr Dariush Mozaffarian from Tufts University. Dr Mozzafarian is the researcher responsible for changing recommendations around saturated fat in recent years and is a leading thinker in the application of food and nutrition research to shaping policy and advice. 

He shared three insightful assertions that signal how the future of public health policy and food and nutrition advice will likely evolve.  Each of these has implications for local strategy in the marketing and production of food. Below is a top line summary: 

Insight 1: Stop talking about obesity and start referring to health.
It is common practise to refer to obesity as being the main public health problem facing the world today. However it's not obesity that's the downstream problem of a poor diet. Rather, it's poor health outcomes. Sub-optimal health that results in an inability to work productively while also drawing on public health services, imparts significant costs to governments.

What this means: 
This viewpoint is consistent with consumer trends research showing people are shifting from a focus on 'dieting' and calorie counting to lose weight toward a greater focus on lifestyle, general health and wellness.  This has been evidenced in a downward trend away from the use of 'diet' as a claim on food products and more toward the use of new brands or nutrient based claims instead.  'Diet' yoghurts for example, have all but disappeared in recent years with brand names shifting toward those that depict a healthy lifestyle.

Insight 2: Take the Blinkers Off 
When promoting healthy eating, and talking about trends, there can be a tendency to have blinkers on when spreading messages about what to eat. Dr Mozzafarian's recommendation is to stop and think about what we really mean before jumping in. He used the current focus on promoting "plant based diets" as an example, saying that much of what is wrong with the world's diet comes from plants (excessive intakes of refined starches and added sugar).

Taking care to fully understand the meaning behind the recommendation to eat a 'plant based diet' is important - even vegan and vegetarian are not necessarily the best way to communicate what's healthy.

What this means:
Don't just follow the latest vernacular. Understand what it means and be clear on how to interpret and apply the messages you use. 

Insight 3: People eat food, not numbers.
The reductionist way policy makers are defining foods as healthy has an historical root in the way governments addressed the prevention of scurvy and pellagra in the 1920's-1940's. However this approach, which involves targeting a nutrient or handful of nutrients to fix a problem, is not working well for the reduction of chronic disease. 

Dr Mozzafarian went as far to suggest that this method, applied most commonly in the form of front of pack interpretative nutrition labels, is flawed and potentially misleading. While reducing added sugar, added salt and added trans fat makes sense, total fat, saturated fat and even calories are misleading metrics to focus on.  

What this means:
Highlighting the nutritional profile of a food can be useful in the targeting of messages to particular consumer groups. However classifying foods as healthy or not based on the presence of a handful of negative or positive nutrients may not be the most effective way to exert positive change in eating habits. Consider complementing any nutrient based claims used in marketing, with additional information on the benefits of the whole food, a greater understanding about where the food comes from, who made or grew it, how to best prepare and serve it, or promoting eating together with others and the sharing of food around a table.

For a full transcript of the day see this link. Dr Mozzafarian's presentation (15 minutes of viewing time) starts at the 2 hour 07 minute mark.

Staying in touch with global thinking and connecting the insights to local actions helps create effective strategy. It can also save time by assisting with decision making. Often we are faced with many options when it comes to prioritising food and health related marketing messages and selecting those that align with global changes in research and policy direction can build a brand's reputation over the long term.