Top European scientists, including Southampton’s Professor Janis Baird, say new policies on food could transform the way we eat.
We assume that our choices about what to eat are entirely our own responsibility. Yet this is not entirely true - our choices are influenced by adverts and marketing, limited by the options we have available to us, and constrained by the money we can afford to spend.
This is why a group of advisors, including Prof Baird at the University of Southampton, have told the European Commission that the transition to healthier, more sustainable diets cannot be left to consumers alone.
Changing the ‘food environment’
Prof Baird, Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology at the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Centre, helped put forward the recommendations to advise the European Commission on how to transform Europe’s food consumption to become healthier and more sustainable.
Her work forms part of the NIHR Southampton’s Biomedical Research Centre’s Nutrition, Lifestyle and Metabolism theme. She was the only representative from UK academia to take part in the distinguished advisory group.
The EU has, to date, focused on providing consumers with more information. Yet experts agree that this is not enough, as people choose food based on many factors including social and family factors, food availability and pricing.
To make sustainable, healthy food an easy and affordable choice, the advisors say policies must unburden the consumer and address the whole ‘food environment’. This refers to anywhere where food is bought, eaten and discussed including shops, homes, schools, workplaces and, increasingly, digital media.
Prof Baird said: "Policies and interventions should focus on changing the food system to ensure that consumers are exposed to healthier food environments. Without this, people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who lack the social and financial resources to make healthy food choices, will continue to have poor diets and high levels of overweight and obesity.
"Interventions that modify the food system, for example through placement of healthier foods in more prominent locations, have greater potential to improve food choice for all groups regardless of their socio-economic background. This has been a focus of our work here in Southampton."
Changing the food system to improve population health
Europe’s current food system has a major impact on the food environment and on population health Obesity and overweight affect around 60% of adults and 30% of children in Europe, with higher levels among people from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Improving the quality of our diets could therefore help both the planet and our health.
The Science Advice for Policy by European Academies (SAPEA) working group reviewed the scientific evidence to inform the recommendations. To promote healthy and sustainable food choices, the advisors recommended a range of evidence-based measures:
They suggested changing food prices to make healthy items more accessible to all. This could be done by taxing sugar and meat or lowering taxes on healthy and sustainable options. Products could also be priced according to their environmental impact.
They also suggested making healthy and sustainable foods more available and visible, for example by displaying them in more prominent places. They recommended restricting the advertising of unhealthy or unsustainable food.
They suggest regulation is needed to reduce the amount of unhealthy fat, sugar and salt food contains, or add plant-based alternatives. This would need to be mandatory, as voluntary initiatives have not worked.
They say it will be critical to create an environment that allows all stakeholders to work towards the goal of healthy and sustainable food, following fair rules.
Prof Eric Lambin, member of the Group of Chief Scientific Advisors to the European Commission, said:
“In order for Europe to achieve its health and sustainability goals, the way we produce, distribute and consume food must change. This cannot be left entirely up to the consumer. We hope our scientific advice and evidence will be the base for that.”