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Can natural products help solve the obesity crisis?

Will your business help solve the obesity crisis? New recommendations from the Institute of Medicine call for greater responsibility on the part of food manufacturers, investigation of farm-policy’s role in the American diet, and a big increase in public education.

Yesterday, the editors of New Hope Natural Media met to discuss some of the most relevant trends affecting the natural products industry as we begin planning 2013 content for our publications. Without a doubt, obesity and related health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease, trump any single public health issue influencing our industry.

Where does government stand on this issue? In conjunction with the Weight of the Nation project, the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institutes of Medicine (IOM) recently released “Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention,” a 400-plus-page document outlining the most pertinent ways government and the private sector can work together to curb the obesity epidemic in the U.S. According to the report, childhood obesity alone accounts for “$14.1 billion in direct medical costs.” The IOM report makes good suggestions that sound familiar, such as overhauling vending machines and convenience food options in public spaces and reigning in marketing messages aimed at children and adolescents.

But the IOM also calls for greater responsibility on the part of food manufacturers, investigation of farm-policy’s role in the American diet, and a big increase in public education. For children, that means making schools “a national focal point for obesity prevention,” promoting food literacy and healthy eating skills. For adults it entails getting employers, health care providers, and insurance companies on board with obesity prevention strategies, including encouraging “active living and healthy eating at work.”

A few key highlights for natural products retailers and manufacturers:

 

  • Introduce, modify, and utilize health-promoting food and beverage retailing and distribution policies, including “attracting retailers and distributors of healthy food to locate in underserved areas and limiting the concentration of unhealthy food venues (e.g. fast-food restaurants, convenience stores).” You probably don’t live in “food desert,” but over 6 percent of Americans do. With limited access to fresh, healthy foods, obesity rates soar in such communities.

    So far, most solutions are coming out of the nonprofit sector, via community food programs and urban farming initiatives. But, as the report emphasizes, we could get for-profit retailers to open stores in such areas by implementing new programs to make it worth their while. Local government can encourage development of new healthier retail venues by giving “priority to stores that also commit to health-promoting retail strategies,” through tax credits, streamlined permitting, zoning, grants, loans, economic development programs, and other incentives.
     
  • Broaden the examination and development of U.S. agriculture policy and research to include implications for the American diet.
    The Food and Nutrition Board recommends the president appoint a task force to investigate the link between ag policy and the American diet, “specifically on the impact of farm subsidies and the management of commodities on food prices, access, affordability, and consumption.” Also, exploration of farming methods, including farm scale; local and non-local distribution chains; and affordability of supply of fresh fruits and vegetables.

    Becca Klein of the Center for a Livable Future notes in her blog about ag-related recommendations included in this report: “They are specific, they are doable, and we need to make sure we do not let this farm bill cycle slip by without including as many of them as possible in the legislation.”
     
  • Adopt policies and implement practices to reduce overconsumption of sweetened beverages.
    For schools, this means prohibiting sugar-sweetened beverages, offering beverages that meet healthy criteria in U.S. Dietary Guidelines, and ensuring access to drinking water.  For the food and beverage industry, this means “developing and promoting a variety of beverage options for consumers … with reduced sugar content, and smaller portion sizes (e.g. 8-oz containers)."

    Although I’m a big fan of plain ol’ water (especially for my kids, who haven’t yet developed a sense for when enough is enough), these examples show that natural products companies are poised to do well if such standards were adopted more widely.
     
  • Ensure consistent nutrition labeling for the front of packages, retail store shelves, and menu and menu boards that encourages healthier food choices, including an FDA/USDA “single standard nutrition labeling system for all fronts of packages and retail store shelves.”

    Labeling systems such as NuVal and Guiding Stars are far from perfect to say the least, and I’m not convinced government could do much better given their track record for supporting industry interests while creating nutrition guidance. Plus, as Marion Nestle points out, front of packaging labels are “about marketing, not health.” Lessening consumption of packaged foods, promoting fresh foods, and getting people to prepare simple, healthy, fresh meals at home or work seems far more important—though not as simple. But, if healthy eating strategies must include labeling, perhaps government agencies could first work on clearing up dubious marketing terms, such as natural.

 

Will your business help solve the obesity crisis?

The natural products industry could be a significant partner in almost all of the IOM’s recommended efforts. But lest we congratulate ourselves too soon on having smart solutions, I also think we need to stay humble. We won’t solve obesity with quick fixes such as  sweetener swaps and “healthier” chips. As an industry, we need stay true to common sense nutrition, to ramp up support of education efforts, to help retrain palates, and to increase availability and affordability of fresh foods and give folks from a variety of income levels and backgrounds the means to prepare them quickly and conveniently.

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