Equalising Nutrition: Enhancing Consumer Knowledge

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

Nutrition remains a widespread problem in the world today, regardless if one has access to food or not. To target this, it is not only important to make sure people have enough food, but also that they have the required knowledge on nutrition to make informed choices about their diets. Food manufacturers can do much more to ensure this, as well as make end-products healthier to improve consumer health. By Michelle Cheong

In today’s world, with the rampant globalisation and rapid technological advancement, standards of living around the world are improving. Still, health and nutrition remains an issue, despite the increased access to food supplies. Rather, with increased affluence, less physically-demanding jobs, enhanced food products and more, yet possibly unhealthy, food, people are ironically getting more prone to being under- or overnourished-- both of which fall under ‘malnourishment’.

But why is this problem of malnutrition so prevalent, even in places with adequate food? Are consumers aware of what constitutes proper nutrition? Or are they just less concerned about the adverse effects of poor nutrition? How can food manufacturers, as the controllers of end-products, help equalise nutrition by preventing over- and undernutrition?

Malnutrition In A Big Way

Emilio Labrador, Florida, US

Whenever ‘malnutrition’ is mentioned, what first comes to mind are the hungry in the world. Efforts by the United Nations’ World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have significantly reduced global prevalence of undernourished people by 42 percent from 1990 to 2014.

With 13.2 percent of the world’s population today still going hungry, the undernourished remain a large global health concern and the emphasis is being placed on alleviating world hunger.

Ensuring that people have enough food is only part of the equation to equalising nutrition globally. Even in other, more developed, parts of the world with adequate food supply, nutrition issues still persist.

While people in these developed countries are not affect by lack of food supply, they are facing a different aspect of malnutrition–overnutrition.

Overnutrition results from consuming diets that either exceed the daily recommended caloric intake through consumption of energy dense foods or the daily requirements for the essential nutrients, or by expending less energy than the amount of calories eaten–- an increasingly common situation with the decreasing number of physically intensive jobs.

Overnutrition is a growing problem because it leads to overweight and obesity. Since 1980, worldwide obesity has since doubled and currently an estimated 1.4 billion adults worldwide are overweight, of which about 500 million are obese, as reported by WHO.

With rising obesity rates, overnutrition also leads to increased risks of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart diseases, diabetes, hypertension and cancer. In recent years, these NCDs have even overtaken infectious diseases to be the major causes of death globally.

Growing Double Burden

Kaihsu Tai

To further complicate matters, overnutrition is not just a problem of the wealthy. In fact, even in low-income countries, the issue of overnutrition has escalated, mainly due to a ‘nutrition transition’ from traditionally low-fat staple diets to more Western-influenced diets that contain more saturated fats, total fats, sugars, starches and animal proteins.

Globalisation has made it easier for countries to import food, majority of which are processed ones that are high in fats, sugar and salt. In developing places such as Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and even Asia, the great influence of the West and perceived ‘glamour’ of these processed foods are partially responsible for the increasing obesity rate.

Another more important reason for this is the lack of access to more nutritious foods, either because they are not readily available, or because they are more expensive. With the added convenience and ease of preparation, savoury tastes and predominantly cheaper prices, processed foods are more heavily consumed in these areas.

Ironically, the overnourished individuals at the same time are often also undernourished as they fail to meet the required levels of micronutrients. It is, therefore, not unusual to find individuals who are overweight yet anaemic, or deficient in zinc, vitamin A, or vitamin D.

This dual burden of being over- and undernourished at the same time within a single individual and in populations has been an increasing global concern from as early as the 1990s.

It is important for consumers to know and understand what constitutes proper nutrition, regardless of where they live or their economic statuses, so that they can make informed choices on their diets.

One way to achieve this is through the help of food manufacturers.

Consumer Education

With regard to tackling the increasing double burden problem, Dr James Bauly, marketing director of DSM Nutritional Products, agreed: “It starts with awareness in education. It is very important that consumers are educated about nutrition, and what food groups or micronutrients are important, and in what quantities.”

Today, countries adopt different food-based dietary guidelines (FBDG) to accommodate and account for the unique characteristics of their populations, such as nutrition situation, local customs, dietary patterns, economic conditions and lifestyles.

However, the basics of nutrition for the average person remain about the same: more should be eaten from the food groups containing fruit and vegetables, proteins and carbohydrates; less from dairy groups or foods high in sugar, fat and salt; drink ample water daily; and sufficient exercise to maintain body weight.

As food manufacturers, to promote healthy eating in consumers, focus should not be placed on the sales or quality of end-products alone; food manufacturers can and should also take part of the responsibility to increase consumers’ nutritional awareness so that they can make informed and healthier decisions about their diets.

Education For The Masses

With a closer relation to consumers through their brands and products, campaigns by food manufacturers be more effective in educating the masses about nutrition. Compared to government outreach programs that target a single nation, these campaigns can potentially reach out to larger crowds and wherever the brand reaches.

To date, there have already been some efforts by food manufacturing companies to spread nutritional awareness. One example is Coca-Cola’s ‘Coming Together’ campaign launched in 2013 to tackle global obesity where elaborate advertisements and infographics drove home the message that obesity is a problem that communities, businesses and government leaders should work together on to conquer.

The company also showed that it offers 180 low and no-calorie beverages out of its estimated 650 beverage products, and highlighted the role of individual responsibility–a lack of exercise or expending less energy than calorie intake per day would increase risk of weight gain and obesity.

Another example is FrieslandCampina’s ‘Drink.Move. BeStrong’ campaign in collaboration with the US’ National Basketball Association (NBA) that was first launched in the Philippines in 2007, and then in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam in 2014.

The campaign was borne of findings through their Southeast Asian nutrition survey, which highlighted a widespread prevalence of malnutrition–-particularly a lack of vitamin D and calcium–-among children under the age of 12.

Aiming to cultivate active and healthy lifestyles among children through play and proper nutrition, the campaign encourages children to drink one glass of milk and spend an hour of physical activity outdoors each day.

A third company that has invested in nutrition education is Kellogg’s which caters different programs for different countries. In Australia, the company works with the nongovernmental organisation Gut Foundation to campaign on the importance of dietary fibre to promote regularity, particularly in children.

In the US, with the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation’s ‘Together Counts’ program, the company campaigns to inspire active and healthy living to reduce obesity rates. Families are encouraged to pledge together on the company’s Facebook to exercise and eat a meal together each day.

In Mexico, nutrition education segments by the company’s Nutrition & Health Institute are sponsored and broadcast weekly on a popular radio program, reaching out to an audience of approximately 500,000. With these initiatives, the company could possibly reach out to even more consumers.

Campaign Critics

George, US

However, these campaigns have been criticised by sceptics who suggest that they are merely marketing ploys to promote their products more aggressively and increase sales, rather than for the health benefits of consumers.

With the Coca-Cola campaign, consumers acknowledged that while the company does provide low- and no-calorie beverages, they questioned the sales of these in comparison to the other beverages, and hence the effectiveness of the campaign.

Regarding FrieslandCampina, though the intention for better health in children may be valid, children in the Southeast Asian countries, as well as their parents, could have been lured more by the prospect of participating in the Jr NBA than desiring better health when buying or consuming the milk products.

As for Kellogg’s, the cereals made by the company are already a favourite amongst children and adults in many countries; health campaigns by them would, even if unintentionally, lead consumers to perceive the products as ‘healthier’, and result in increased sales.

In light of such scepticism, food manufacturers should be questioned about the true objectives of these health campaigns. Are they really for the health of their consumers, or merely to push sales?

Though there will always be a business element embedded within campaigns like these, the most important objective should be to equip consumers with nutritional knowledge.

Proactive Food Manufacturing

Besides campaigns, there are other ways that food manufacturers can help improve consumer nutrition, lower malnutrition rates and equalise nutrition globally.

For the consumers, knowing what constitutes good nutrition is one thing, but actually making informed decisions and foregoing ‘unhealthy snacks’ which they may like is quite another.

Food manufacturers can therefore help improve consumers’ health by proactively lowering the level of fat, sugar, and salt content, especially in products that are popular with consumers. In this way, food manufacturers can also complement existing health campaigns of governmental associations or health bodies.

One such campaign is that by the American Heart Association (AHA) to ‘break up with excess salt’ that was launched in 2014. Upon finding that 97 percent of surveyed consumers underestimated or were not able to estimate their sodium intakes per day, the campaign sought to educate consumers about the amount of salt they eat.

The association suggested that food manufacturers can reduce the sodium level in their products, and that any reduction-- even if not drastic enough to earn a ‘reduced-sodium’ label–-would help. This applies similarly for foods containing sugar and fat as well.

Reducing the level of these would ultimately lower consumers’ intake of fat, sugar, and salt, and aid in lowering risks for overnutrition, obesity and NCDs overall.

Fortifying With Necessity

International Rice Research Institute

Food manufacturers can also fortify foods with micronutrients that consumers require, especially where food may not be easily accessed.

Fortification, defined by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), is to add nutrients to levels higher than those originally found in the food, thereby enriching food.

Under the direction of the FAO and WHO, food manufacturers are currently complying with mandatory fortifications in certain countries, adding fluorine to water and calcium to staples.

Elsewhere in the world, food manufacturers have fortified other products with other micronutrients as well. Popular examples include fortifying milk or other dairy products with calcium, DHA, omega-3, or protein.

However, the decision for fortification is left entirely up to individual food manufacturers in many countries – not all participate in voluntary fortification. One of the reasons for this is the effect of fortification on taste and visual appearance of the product.

Foods and beverages need to taste good and visually appeal to consumers, regardless of the health benefits. Only then can a product sell, and benefit food manufacturers.

However, some micronutrients, when added to food products, may alter the taste or colour of the product and cause consumers to veer away. To avoid this, some food manufacturers may be less inclined to fortifying their foods.

Others may be more concerned about costs. For some micronutrients, though they may be more beneficial to health, the costs of the fortification processes may be dearer than if other micronutrients were fortified. Food manufacturers may therefore fortify ‘cheaper’ micronutrients which may not be as beneficial to consumers.

For those already involved in food fortification, the process may be consumer-driven. In recent years, due to consumer demands in following health and wellness trends, there has been a significant increase in products fortified with particular nutrients such as omega-3 and protein.

With majority jumping on to the consumer demand train, it is possible that food manufacturers may be overlooking other more necessary micronutrients.

Therefore, similar to health campaigns held by food manufacturers, fortification of foods can also be perceived to promote branding and increase sales, rather than for consumer health benefits. To prevent being seen as a mere follower of consumer demand, food manufacturers can take a proactive role in fortifying foods with nutrients that the public needs and not just what they want.

Rob, Seattle, US

With the growing ageing populations around the world, calcium would be a micronutrient vital to maintain the health of the elderly. Vitamins E, C, B6, magnesium, potassium, and zinc, are others that would be required by older populations to maintain immune functions, metabolism, and bone health as well, and fortifying foods with these would definitely maintain or improve consumer health.

Being controllers of end-products, food manufacturers can play a large role in helping to combat malnutrition and thereby equalising nutrition around the world.

This can be done with campaigns to increase nutritional awareness, active steps to reduce unhealthy contents in their products, and fortifying foods with needed micronutrients.

The question remains, would they be able to prioritise consumer health above sales? If they can, it would be well possible that malnutrition is a much lesser concern in the near future.