How corporations shape our food choices and health outcomes

Editorial

In this editorial, Caroline Costongs paints a vivid picture of a society overwhelmed by unhealthy food options, making it increasingly difficult for individuals to access healthy food choices.

 

As I persist in my battle against McDonald's settling near four schools in my village, I retain a keen interest in how fast-food outlets affect our health and surroundings, especially that of young people. 

It is not only the increasing number of fast-food outlets I am concerned about, but also the vast amount of ultra-processed foods in our supermarkets. Just recently, I noted that the beer selection in my local supermarket has doubled in size! As Belgium is a country that appreciates a wide variety of beer brands, you can imagine what an enormous amount of beer options it now offers. We seem to be surrounded and 'seduced' by very unhealthy food environments, a situation that continues to worsen

We need to design and ensure healthy food environments are affordable for all. Our food systems must urgently transform, not only for people but also for the planet, considering the consequential impacts of our food production on climate, biodiversity, and land use. 

Food for thought: is fast food expansion an illusion or a reality?

It may be that I am suffering from ''the frequency illusion" or the "Baader-Meinhof phenomenon". This apparently occurs through two psychological processes: selective attention and confirmation bias. Selective attention involves being intensely focused on specific things while disregarding others. In this case, I have become fixated on fast-food and ultra-processed food places, noticing these everywhere while inadvertently overlooking healthy food outlets. Confirmation bias leads me to assume that every sight of a fast-food place is further proof that there’s going to be a silent fast-food boom. You tell me. 

On the other hand, I read about the strategic plans of McDonald's, which aim to open 50 new restaurants in Belgium over the coming years, targeting 10 per year. Meanwhile, Burger King aims for an average of 8 new establishments per year. I am not aware of the expansion plans of KFC, or Domino's Pizza, etc., but as corporations generally want to grow and do not adhere to concepts of 'sufficiency', I expect similar ambitions across the board for those fast-food giants. And this is not only in Belgium. 

...there is a clear social gradient in the consumption of cheap, unhealthy food, as these are more easily available in more deprived communities, while being attractive at times when people face high cost-of-living crises

Nourishing insights for transformative change

My thought evolution is coupled with my interesting summer read, ''Ultra-Processed People'' by Chris van Tulleken. In his book, the author describes Ultra-Processed Food (UPF) as foods containing at least one ingredient that you would not normally use in your kitchen while often being wrapped in plastic. We already know that UPF can be addictive. They contain high levels of salt, sugar, and fat, have virtually no nutritional value, and contribute to high levels of obesity and noncommunicable diseases. However, the book made me realise that this rather artificial food can also be harmful in and of itself due to its chemical compositions and might affect our body and health in subtle ways we do not yet understand.  
 
UPF, including fast food, makes up half of the average diet in countries like the United Kingdom. In addition, there is a clear social gradient in the consumption of cheap, unhealthy food, as these are more easily available in more deprived communities while being attractive at times when people face high cost-of-living crises. It no longer makes sense to tell people to change their behaviours and eat healthily. We need to design and ensure healthy food environments are affordable for all. Our food systems must urgently transform, not only for people but also for the planet, considering the consequential impacts of our food production on climate, biodiversity, and land use. 

Breaking the 'Business as Usual' paradigm

EuroHealthNet organised a plenary session on transitioning towards more sustainable food systems that support health and wellbeing at the European Public Health Conference in Dublin. What can we do? What are the most urgent actions needed in food systems? And what can the role of public health and health professionals?  

In our EuroHealth article, we consider the drawbacks of relying too much on the 'business as usual' approach. This includes industry self-regulation and solely targeting individual behaviours in an unsustainable food environment. Instead, we advocate for the implementation of coordinated and systemic policies that promote widespread adoption of sustainable and healthy food choices and practices across the entire population. 

...we consider the drawbacks of relying too much on the 'business as usual' approach. This includes industry self-regulation and solely targeting individual behaviours in an unsustainable food environment.

A magazine edition dedicated to our food systems

This edition of the EuroHealthNet Magazine includes many articles dedicated to food and food systems. You read from Lien Van der Biest from the Flemish Institute of Healthy Living, for example, who provides insights into how Flanders is implementing innovative approaches to improve healthy living environments. 

Célia Nyssens-James from the European Environmental Bureau shares her views on the indirect impacts of our food systems on our health and that this extends far beyond the contents of our plates. Read also the interview with Chrystelle Verhoest on the cooperative revolution in the world of supermarkets and how this contributes to more healthy and sustainable food options. 

Promising policies at the EU level, such as the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Sustainable Food Systems Framework, and the mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling proposal, include measures to make food systems more environmentally friendly, fair, and healthy. However, due to industry lobbying and political sensitiveness, these important food files are delayed and won't see the light before the end of this European Commission mandate. Amandine Garde has more in her article on big business vs. public health.

Transitioning our food systems is complex and long-term. Katarzyna Brukało stresses the importance of international efforts and recognises that change is not a sudden revolution but an evolutionary process, a delicate balance between preserving our food culture and simultaneously embracing sustainability. Anant Jani from FEAST also reflects on our food culture, asking, what actually is food culture? How does it impact the way we eat, and in what way does industry use culture to influence our food choices? 

International cooperation in this area is exemplified by the Best-ReMaP Joint Action (JA), which brought together 36 partners from 24 European countries to explore the implementation potential of three key food and nutrition policies: food reformulation, restrictions on food marketing to children, and public food procurements. Mojca Gabrijelčič Blenkuš, Petra Ožbolt and Monika Robnik Levart from the Slovenian National Institute of Public Health provide further analysis. Meanwhile, Lorena Savani and Carmen Galindo from EIT Food delve into the intricate connections between water scarcity, food systems, and health in Europe. 

Other important contributions to this edition of the magazine include an article from Karin Streimann and Triin Vilms (National Institute for Health Development in Estonia) on breaking down silos for prevention. Richard Watt explores the connection between oral health and our wellbeing as a key determinant of a person's wider health. We talk with Daniela Kállayová from the Ministry of Health of the Slovak Republic to discuss the country's free vaccination programme being rolled out across Slovakia in the fight against HPV and reflect on its impact 12 months on. 

I hope you find this edition of the EuroHealthNet Magazine valuable and interesting. In case you still wonder, what will happen to my village and McDonald's request to open up a drive-through restaurant close to four schools? The action group I joined sought the support of a lawyer who helped file an appeal. We are still waiting for the legal verdict. To be continued...

Happy reading! 

Caroline Costongs
Director at EuroHealthNet | + posts

Caroline Costongs is Director of EuroHealthNet and expert in public health and health promotion. Caroline leads a multi-disciplinary team working on European and (sub)national policy, advocacy, research and capacity building addressing health inequalities. Caroline is active in various EU and WHO fora, Advisory Boards and various EU projects, and is a member of the ICC – International Council for the European Public Health Conference.

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