Monday, September 21, 2020

Disconnect between nutrition science and commerce: a major drawback to development?

Over the last three decades science has made great strides in the field of nutrition. Owing to these developments we now understand to a great extent what and how to eat in order to live as long, as healthy and as productively as possible. We have enough knowledge to influence our cognitive and physical development by the food choices we make. We even know enough to tweak our choice of food to influence those things that we thought were out of reach decades back. These include things like conception, the sex of the child and yes, even longevity.

However, the impact of these research efforts on the lives of the populace remains very limited. We are not even reaping even a meagre 10th of what we can realize given the wealth of the knowledge we have. Some have argued that the reason for this challenge is attributed to the dis-connect between nutrition science and the marketing of food. This dis-connect centres around the contrasting focus of nutrition / public health professionals and food industry.

On one hand Nutrition and Health professionals focus largely on informing, educating and communicating nutrition information to the consumers with the hope that armed with a wealth of information consumers will pattern their food choices and attitudes towards food along these science-based principles. On the other hand the food industry’s focus is to move (any or every) food products to consumers using any profitable approach. Given the meagre resources public health professionals have allocated to educating consumers, their message is at best a whisper. Their efforts are easily clouded by the faster, louder and action packed food industry’s approach. Consequently, food is moved without much regard of its nutrient content. Given this imbalance, invariably foods with the least nutrient content is moved in larger volumes that nutrient rich foods.
There are arguments advanced by others to the effect that public private partnerships are the way to go in meeting public health objectives.

That a win-win situation will likely result when the food industry’s skill and craftiness in moving food to the consumers is coupled with the health conscious messages of the public health practitioners. As to whether such a win-win situation is possible only time will tell. Our greatest fear is that such partnerships are likely to increase the massive and all powerful food industry to silence the voice of public health professions, after all how easy it is to bite the hand that feeds you.

A case in point regards the International Code on the Marketing of the Breast milk substitute. The International Code on the marketing of breast milk substitute was developed and adopted by several governments and industry in 1979. In this code the food industry essentially endorsed the superiority of breast-milk over infant formula and further agreed not to market infant formula to mothers’ for whom breast feeding is medically permissible. Yet, today a quick survey in our local supermarkets reveals paucity of information on labels; not a single infant formula can claim that in its labels the concerned food industry has PROCLAIMED ( not in fine print) to consumers that if you can breast feed please do not buy this product. The commodity you have (breast milk) is superior to this formula.

Perhaps despite what history tells us there is still room for public-private partnerships in advancing public health objectives. If there is indeed a chance that remedying the disconnect between public health is mutually beneficial, this link can only reconnect favourably when we realise that public health should be part of business model, and not a casuality of the model. Furthermore, the industry must enable policy makers and nutrition researchers to guard the interest of the public and ensure that their voices in articulating the role of nutrition in public health are loud and clear.

It is however poignant to note that in today’s world the quest for profit has surpassed the need to maintain health. In not one by many occasions anti-nutritional substances are continually used in food products, all in the name of better taste, appearance, and off course good profits. Similarly food companies continue to use or add ingredients such as sugar and salt indiscriminately.

Very rarely do advertisements of food appeal to the nutritive properties of the food. Rather, adverts often appeal to temporary gains, if at all. If only the advertisements of food were based on the nutritive properties of food, then fruits and vegetables will top the list. In contrast to this, the most advertised food entities are carbonated drinks, alcoholic beverages and confectionaries. What are we to make of all these? Is it that difficult to make profits by selling the genuine goodness of food products? Perhaps that is the great disconnect between public health nutrition and the food industry!

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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.