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Nutrition professionals needed for dietary advice, not industry

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A new report out of Queensland University of Technology has brought some evidence to a long assumed notion that food industry has heavily influenced nutrition-related public health policy in Australia.

Analysing 4 rounds of data set, the researchers established a clear advantage the food industry has in influencing policy with direct access to ‘decision makers’. Nutrition professionals, on the other hand, had little access.

Consulting with independent and unbiased nutrition professionals on developing and implementing food and nutrition-related public health policy seems like a no-brainer. Yet it is the industry that have more than their fair share of say.

“Manufactured food companies are powerful players and fund the Australian Food and Grocery Council and the Australian Beverage Association which are highly professional in lobbying and maintain the greatest capability to influence policy, “ says researcher Katherine Cullerton, PhD.

What the industry is doing is good business, and not surprising. Yet Cullerton says the industry influence and self-regulation is impacting the nutritional status of Australians, and we are failing to produce nutrition-focused initiatives based on latest evidence.

“This situation has been allowed to continue when other countries are undertaking policy action to protect their citizens against dangerous levels of salt, sugar, fat in food to combat obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Instead we have had ‘self-regulation’ by the food industry lobby whose vested interest has helped ensure no national nutrition policy that could save thousands of lives from poor diets and millions of healthcare dollars.”

Nutrition professionals and the public unite!

This is a call to nutrition professionals to take a leaf out of the food industry’s lobbying book. If we want to see change, we need to make change happen.

That change can come from everyday Australians, too. Industry will respond to consumer demands, which we have seen with increased availability of products with reduced amounts of added sugar.

Even PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, who have been reported to fund public health schemes, then lobby against them, are seeking to reduce their added sugar content in their drinks in response to falling soft drink sales and growing public concern for the health impacts of excess sugary drink consumption.

Policy for the people

But introducing policy designed to benefit the health of the population will continue to come up against resistance.

As you may be aware, there is much discussion on the proposed tax for sugar-sweetened beverages. Introducing fiscal policy like this was recently recommended by the WHO to help combat the rise in chronic, diet-related conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Yet the sugary drink industry is firmly against such a move, despite getting creative to bring us ‘healthier’ drink alternatives in future.

Which means it is up to public pressure along with persistent lobbying and advocacy by healthcare professionals, including nutritionists, other healthcare practitioners, and scientists, to ensure that impartial, up-to-date, evidence-based advice is used to inform public health policy.

Working together

Perhaps it needn’t be all us and them. Perhaps there is capacity to collaborate with the big influencers of the food industry.

Mandatory, easy-to-understand nutrition labeling on packaged foods (that is not largely influenced by the food industry) would help the consumer to make an informed decision about what they are buying. The manufacturers could use this information for their marketing benefit, for example.

Whatever the next step forward is, continuing to allow manufacturers of sugar-laden, salt-encrusted, trans-fat riddled foods to have the biggest influence and direct access to policy makers won’t bode well for the future health of Australians.

By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut. Med)

 

References:

  1. Cullerton, K et al. 2016, ‘Exploring power and influence in nutrition policy in Australia’, Obesity Reviews, [Epub ahead of print].
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