Obesity is a big problem for Australia. These days’ two out of three adults and one quarter of kids are overweight or obese, and these numbers just continue to rise.
So who is responsible for this obesity epidemic? Some argue that it’s the individual to blame for their poor choices. Some say that it’s our increasingly inactive lifestyles. Other say that the issue is a change in our gut microbiome. But there is a growing consensus from health professionals that our food environment, that’s the physical and social factors that influence what we eat, play a big role in this weighty problem.
The food industry that make and produce the food that we eat, and the supermarkets that supply it directly to us. So should they be held responsible for for their customers food choices?
Supermarkets are big business. A $102 billion business to be precise.
In Australia, 90 per cent of all groceries are bought in supermarkets. With such high sale numbers they exercise control over the a huge part of our food system. They choose which suppliers will provide your food. They choose which products will be available to you and when. They choose where you food will be located at the supermarket, the isle, the shelf, and the location and they choose the price. All these factors will ultimately influence what you eat.
Just think about it – you go to the supermarket on a Sunday night to buy your regular groceries. Normally, you buy red apples for you lunch. But today the red apples that you normally buy are nowhere to be seen, and the green apples are ten dollars per kilo! At the end of the isle you see that your favourite biscuits are on sale. There’s even a two for one deal! So you stock up on bickies and eat those everyday for lunch instead of your apple.
Sound like you have made a healthy choice? No you’re right, you haven’t. But your supermarket played a big part in influencing your decision. So should they ve held accountable, or should you?
A ‘sweet’ deal
It’s well established that supermarkets heavily market and discount highly processed foods that are laden with sugar, fat and salt. A survey conducted by Live Lighter, a health education campaign delivered by the Cancer Council and Heart Foundation, found that foods like chips, chocolate and sugary drinks are often cheap to buy and heavily promoted.
Lisa Renn, a Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia explained that a diet high in calorie rich foods can be linked to obesity.
“People put on weight when they take in more energy than they burn doing exercise” said Ms Renn. “If people are eating a high calorie diet and not doing enough exercise, they can expect for their weight to increase”.
So could the solution to our obesity epidemic simply be to stop people from eating these foods?
Ms Renn emphasised that obesity is a complex issue, and there is no single solution.
“Obesity is a multifaceted problem” said Ms Renn. “We live in a country where obesity rates are high so obviously more needs to be done. If we are all working together with food industry and government we will be able to have an impact”.
Supermarkets contribute to what is known as the ‘food environment’. This describes the physical and social factors that influence what we eat. This includes how accessible food is, how it is distributed and how we obtain it. Since supermarkets supply such a large proportion of Australian groceries, they have a significant ability to influence our own food environments.
A recent study from Deakin University’s Global Obesity Centre has observed that supermarkets are not doing enough to encourage healthy eating. The study looked the major supermarkets’ policies and commitments to obesity prevention and improving nutrition. The researchers found that of the four major supermarkets only two were undertaking strategies to support nutrition.
Associate Professor Gary Sacks, and lead author of the study commented to the Sydney Morning Herald that the research results were no surprising.
“It was what I expected it to be, I knew Coles and Woolworths were paying some attention to nutrition, while Aldi and IGA really were not, so it wasn’t a surprise” said Associate Professor Sacks. “No companies had taken significant action to restrict the availability of ‘less healthy’ foods in-store [and] no companies had made a commitment to restrict promotions on ‘less healthy’ products”.
VicHealth, the state’s leading health promotion body agrees, identifying that supermarkets are not doing enough to promote healthy eating. The organisation are urging supermarkets to do more in the fight against obesity.
“Our supermarkets need to step up to the plate in the fight against obesity. We still see too many catalogues full of junk food specials, checkouts lined with chocolates and lollies and home-brand products full of added salt, sugar and fat” said VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter.
“Supermarkets have an enormous opportunity to create change. Small steps, like stocking healthy fresh foods at the checkouts and including more healthy products in their catalogues, will make a big difference in encouraging customers to choose healthier food and drinks”.
Over the past few years, the food industry have received a pretty bad wrap. Numerous media articles, documentaries and professionals have called them out for creating and promoting unhealthy products. Driven by profits, these companies have been selling consumers products laden with fat, sugar and salt for years. So could the food industry be to blame for our expanding waistlines?
Josie Hill, a Senior Policy Advisor at the Australian Medical Association explained that although some food producers are trying to make positive changes, many put their profits above the health of their customers.
“We know that there are some groups trying to do the right thing’ said Ms Hill. ‘But there are still some groups who put profits above health”.
Unfortunately for consumers, the food industry know that a sugar-sweetened drink is going to sell better than a bottle of mineral water. So what can we do to encourage the food industry to produce healthier products?
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) believes that a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is one part of the solution. In their position statement on nutrition, the AMA state that they believe that a tax or levy on sugar-sweetened beverages in Australia will reduce consumption. This in turn will encourage consumers to make healthier choices.
“We have seen with tobacco, when you price something higher people will reduce their spending” said Ms Hill. “We have seen in examples overseas that introducing a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages will reduce the consumption of these beverages”.
Despite the mounting evidence, the sugar tax has failed to gain government support.
“The government is lobbied by food industry. They are against anything they perceive to impact their bottom line” said Ms Hill.
This consensus is shadowed by other experts in the area. Georgina Barber, a Nutrition Researcher at Monash University agrees, highlighting the tactics that the industry uses to influence government.
“We know that the food industry pressures government” said Ms Barber. “We need to closely monitor the tactics that they use to influence the government’s policy”.
The AMA agrees. “We know food industry has the capability to change, especially when there is an incentive to do it”.
So who is responsible for managing this obesity epidemic? It’s clear that supermarkets and food industry play a role. But it is a much bigger issue than it seems.