The influence of large, powerful food and beverage companies, also known as “Big Food” must be reduced in order to combat obesity, undernutrition and climate change, a report has concluded.
A group of experts, commissioned by the journal The Lancet, were brought together to make recommendations on how to address these planetary health issues, which they call “The Global Syndemic”. A syndemic involves the social, environmental and economic factors that can interact with and worsen disease.
The commission identified a number of ways in which the financial incentives of Big Food can carry political weight and play a part in large-scale decisions that impact upon global health and sustainability. The implication is that these systems could be modified to promote a more positive outcome.
It was highlighted that only a few countries, such as Sweden, Germany, Qatar and Brazil, have put environmentally stable guidelines that improve diet quality in place. In order to lengthen this list, the commission called for a number of actions, including the development of a global framework to manage food systems, similarly to how the tobacco industry is regulated.
Another recommendation made was to direct subsidies away from unhealthy and unsustainable agricultural practices, as well as to financially support campaigns and policies to improve health. The report cited the work of El Poder del Consumidor, a Mexican non-governmental organisation (NGO), who successfully campaigned for the introduction of a sugar tax in their country.
Currently, Big Food has the power to exert huge influence on governments and other organisations involved in setting dietary guidelines. Tim Lobstein of the World Obesity Federation, who was part of the commission, notes that the US Congress contains 294 lobbyists from food and beverage companies, which is more than from either the alcohol or tobacco industries.
He said, “of that, two-thirds are former Congress staff, so they know what they are doing. That level of lobbying is devoted to preserving the status quo. It is a major barrier to change and must be challenged.”
The report recognised that, when systems are influenced by industry, rather than being collaborative, sustainability can be kept out of the design. For example, fossil fuel subsidies in the USA allow petrol prices to be kept artificially low, which may be encouraging people to drive rather than opting for healthier, more environmentally-friendly methods walking, cycling, or using public transport.
Professor Boyd Swinburn, of the University of Auckland and co-chair of the commission, opined that “Until now, undernutrition and obesity have been seen as polar opposites of either too few or too many calories.
“In reality, they are both driven by the same unhealthy, inequitable food systems, underpinned by the same political economy that is single-focused on economic growth and ignores the negative health and equity outcomes”.
On the subject of what constitutes a healthy, sustainable diet, the report echoed the sentiments of the EAT-Lancet commission, advising that increasing intake of plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains, while limiting salt, red meat, sugary drinks and ultra-processed foods, could promote health.
Some of the recommendations of the EAT-Lancet commission are not agreed upon by all leading health experts, such as the limiting of salt and red meat.
The full 56-page report is published in The Lancet.