by Marion Nestle
Mar 7 2012

U.N. Special Rapporteur: Five Ways to Fix Unhealthy Diets

Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has issued five recommendations for fixing diets and food systems:

  • Tax unhealthy products.
  • Regulate foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar.
  • Crack down on junk food advertising.
  • Overhaul misguided agricultural subsidies that make certain ingredients cheaper than others.
  • Support local food production so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh and nutritious foods.

De Schutter explains:

One in seven people globally are undernourished, and many more suffer from the ‘hidden hunger’ of micronutrient deficiency, while 1.3 billion are overweight or obese.

Faced with this public health crisis, we continue to prescribe medical remedies: nutrition pills and early-life nutrition strategies for those lacking in calories; slimming pills, lifestyle advice and calorie counting for the overweight.

But we must tackle the systemic problems that generate poor nutrition in all its forms.

Governments, he said:

have often been indifferent to what kind of calories are on offer, at what price, to whom they are accessible, and how they are marketed…We have deferred to food companies the responsibility for ensuring that a good nutritional balance emerges.

…Heavy processing thrives in our global food system, and is a win-win for multinational agri-food companies…But for the people, it is a lose-lose…In better-off countries, the poorest population groups are most affected because foods high in fats, sugar and salt are often cheaper than healthy diets as a result of misguided subsidies whose health impacts have been wholly ignored.

Much to ponder here.  Let’s hope government health agencies listen hard and get to work.

For further information, the press release adds these links:

  • If you ask me these two are the most important:

    “Overhaul misguided agricultural subsidies that make certain ingredients cheaper than others.

    Support local food production so that consumers have access to healthy, fresh and nutritious foods.”

    I think regulation of unhealthy foods would be going too far. As they say, people want even more that which they cannot have. Alcohol is restricted, but that does not stop rampant abuse by those under the drinking age. Companies should be able to market products to customers, but should not be able to target children. Adults can choose for themselves what they will eat, even if they do not always choose wisely. What really needs to change is the pervasive problem of subsidies (corn, soybeans) for ingredients used in processed foods that unfairly tips the financial scale in favor of processed food. Even the best-intentioned person can be led astray by the low prices of unhealthy fare.

    Those subsidies should be going to the hard-working farmers who make their livelihood and have dedicated their lives to producing wholesome, nutritious food for their communities, not just corn and soybeans to ship off to the factories. The low prices of processed food, fueled by subsidies makes it difficult for these farmers to keep their operations afloat.

    I just read an unrelated article that mentioned how sad it is that the amount of money a person makes is often inversely proportionate to their value to society. I’m not saying that farmers should be billionaires, but I am saying it is not fair for local farms to struggle while agri-business bloats with profit, in part because of an unfair system.

    We hear constantly that people should spend the extra money on healthy food now to save on health care costs later, but when I person is in the grocery store, it is difficult to think that far ahead when you only have so much money in your pocket. While many are fortunate enough to not have to worry about the cost of fresh food for their families, that is not the case for everyone.

  • Brandon

    I would definitely like to see “Overhaul misguided agricultural subsidies that make certain ingredients cheaper than others.”

    However, I think that will only work short term though. Let’s say food subsidies shift from corn to blueberries. It will only be a matter of time before food companies come up with High Fructose Blueberry Syrup. Basically, processed food will still remain processed (in a negative way).

    I see a ton of resistance to “Regulate foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar” and “Tax unhealthy products”. I also think taxing unhealthy products will put a stigma on those foods taxed, but people will get over that, as the tax itself will likely be too small to actually make a difference in purchasing decisions. I also think that “regulate foods” really needs to include doubling or tripling the price of those foods.

    Finally, I get tired of seeing “reduce salt”. This is 2012, don’t all nutritionists know to focus on what TO DO instead of what NOT TO DO. The recommendation should be “increase potassium” (and magnesium?). Replace some foods eaten throughout the day with fruits and vegetables.

  • Margeretrc

    I agree with the last two, not the first three. The problems with the first 3 are many. The second tenet illustrates the most serious problem with the first. Who/what decides the definition of “unhealthy?” Saturated fat in and of itself is not unhealthy–unless it is chemically saturated or partially saturated. You said yourself in a previous post that all natural fats are a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. The only natural fat that is significantly more than half saturated is coconut oil, which happens to be a very healthy fat. Most “saturated fats” have a good bit of mono and polyunsaturated fat. Lard, for example, is higher in monounsaturated fat than anything else, yet is considered a “saturated” fat merely by reason that it’s an animal fat. The jury is out on salt, too. For a few individuals, salt is a problem–more often than not because their diet is also high in sugar and starch. For most of us, salt is not an issue and too little salt can definitely be a problem–a serious one. And sugar–well, fruits are high in sugar. Going to regulate them? Last I heard, this is a free country. Government does have the need to regulate some things to protect us from others with less than honorable motives. Its job is not to protect us from ourselves and that is what is being considered here. And, except–perhaps–for advertisements aimed at kids, the first amendment protects the right of junk food producers to advertise. It’s our job to educate ourselves so we don’t succumb to it, not government’s job to prevent it or regulate it. We already have truth in advertising laws in place. Just enforce them. No need to enact new laws. No, no, most emphatically NO!
    I definitely agree with the last two. Get rid of the subsidies, already and support local food production–as long as it’s sustainable.

  • Jarmila

    People need to be more educated about eating right. They spend lots of money at fast food restaurants and they could make healthy food for less money at home if they really cared. But for most it’s convenience of this food instead of making effort. Healthy food doesn’t take that long to make. Also part of the problem is the biggest meal is eaten at end of the day. In Europe we had big breakfast and lunch with soup and small dinner. Eating out was not that often. When my mom visits she always complain about American food being too salty and too sweet.
    More regulation won’t change thinking of people.

  • Benboom

    Ah, the old demon “Unhealthy saturated fat” raises its head again. That would be butter, lard, coconut oil, etc.; all the oils I have been eating since I dropped 25 pounds with no trouble AND gained muscle mass at the same time (I had thought that was impossible), as well as lowering my triglycerides by 125 points, my blood sugar, and my blood pressure.

    Obviously, I should have been eating six servings of grain a day along with margarine, since that is what’s really good for us…oops, I mean agribusiness.

    When you start telling people “you can’t eat this” you will ALWAYS have problems.

  • Anthro

    Olivier De Schutter
    Olivier De Schutter (LL.M., Harvard University ; Ph.D., University of Louvain (UCL)), the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food since May 2008, is a Professor at the Catholic University of Louvain and at the College of Europe (Natolin). He is also a Member of the Global Law School Faculty at New York University and is Visiting Professor at Columbia University.

    In 2002-2006, he chaired the EU Network of Independent Experts on Fundamental Rights, a high-level group of experts which advised the European Union institutions on fundamental rights issues. He has acted on a number of occasions as expert for the Council of Europe and for the European Union.

    Since 2004, and until his appointment as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, he has been the General Secretary of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) on the issue of globalization and human rights.

    His publications are in the area of international human rights and fundamental rights in the EU, with a particular emphasis on economic and social rights and on the relationship between human rights and governance. His most recent book is International Human Rights Law (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010).

  • FarmerJane

    Producing milk with my 100 grazing cows in the northeast, a tax on fat seems like a rather blunt hammer to me. Sitting in the cow pasture, and looking up to the urban policy makers level, I am not sure how much more our farm can stand in terms of massive policy switches thrown back and forth.
    Attempting to regulate the food the consumer eats seems so far removed from agriculture, nature and the natural resources readily available to produce that food. As we try to do a good job with our land, cattle, wildlife, etc., there are NYC consumers who show no interest in the resources of our region, but rather tell NYC milk drinkers to go and have a soy or coconut milk brought in from far away. (usually some massive monoculture or plantation farm with the drink “milk” produced by global scale companies). Other policy writers (real property taxation and land use planners) hit us up with massive real estate taxes in the name of funding more government programs mandated by the state. Our milk production is also subjected to a monthly “fee” (tax) to be used for advertisement of dairy products pushing more cheese, a big chunk of which is made by the single massive company (I dare not say their name) that supplies the equally massive fast food industry.
    Now we are told that we must sell more and better dairy products because the big CAFO’s are producing more and more, and that dairy farmers will also have to fund more dairy research. Some urban nutritionists tells us that dairy fats should be taxed. At the same time, the state is giving a few local farmers small grants to help build some farmstead cheese facilities to make more luscious dairy fat cheeses that could be taxed under the Special Provacateur’s Plan. And, the mega multi-thousand cow farms are getting grants to help with methane digesters to do something with the methane generated by their 1,000 cow CAFO’s. (much touted by global agribusinesses catering to CAFO’s who will get the benefits of the government grant money to help the CAFO’s deal with the problems they create).
    I keep managing the pastures, rotating the cows in their grazing, tending to the land, and trying to treat the cows well. I’m hoping there will be a return to simple good old fashioned common sense: basic real foods, pride in the foods produced well in one’s region, an end to government subsidies and tender care of the very largest, and tax and finance gimmicks that benefit the big to the detriment of the small. I am very encouraged that some of the readers of Dr. Nestle’s blog are interested in us, the regular farmers. Only a multi-disciplinary approach will save the day in the long run. Thanks, Dr. Nestle, for giving a way for us to comment.

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  • Betsy

    My husband and I just returned from a road trip through the south (Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and Missouri). We are from Wisconsin, so all we know of those states is anecdotal. Still, we were shocked by the number (miles) of fast food chain restaurants and the absolute lack of fresh, real food. Eating sensibly on the road was not easy. People in small towns seem to eat pizza, burgers, chicken and burritos in gas stations. Alarming number of overweight children and adults drinking really big containers of soda. Really, we have a public health epidemic. Perhaps those who cannot support even a tiny tax on soda should get out of Washington and take a good, hard look at what we are becoming. It is not a pretty picture.

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