Katherine Rich: Fighting diabetes epidemic

1 May 2016

The numbers are scary: 422 million people worldwide had diabetes in 2014, up from 108 million in 1980, and 347 million in 2008; the prevalence of diabetes among those over 18 years of age rose from 4.7% in 1980 to 8.5% in 2014; in 2012, an estimated 1.5 million deaths were directly caused by diabetes and a further 2.2 million were attributable to high blood glucose; almost half of all deaths attributable to high blood glucose occur before the age of 70.

In addition, the World Health Organisation (WHO) projects that diabetes will be the 7th leading cause of death in 2030.

Little wonder that diabetes was the focus of WHO’s World Health Day last month. Little wonder, also, that the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) lent its considerable support to helping combat what it calls this “staggering burden on people around the world”.

The CGF, of which the New Zealand Food & Grocery Council is a member, represents consumer goods manufacturers and retailers in making efficiencies that benefit shoppers and consumers. Supporting World Health Day and the fight against diabetes fits right into one of its four main ‘pillars’, Health & Wellness, which has the aim of “Empowering consumers to make the right decisions and helping them to adopt healthier lifestyles.”

The CGF says the world is facing “a critical increase in non-communicable diseases”, including obesity and diabetes, and that increase is directly related to changing diets and physical activity. It says addressing this needs action from manufacturers and retailers working together.

And that’s exactly the approach taken by FGC’s members, many of whom have been very active in reformulating foods to offer healthier choices, and sponsoring or being actively involved in initiatives in schools and communities that promote healthier lifestyles by way of better diet and more exercise.

Our food industry is as concerned as anyone about diseases such as diabetes and obesity, and FGC has work groups comprising company representatives, often CEOs, who work on nutrition and education issues, programmes in schools, charity projects, and alongside other organisations on all sorts of health initiatives.

A recent survey of members shows exactly the sort of work they are involved in:

* More than half of companies provide education material for community groups, schools and care facilities.

* They sponsor initiatives such as the Heart Foundation’s fuelled4life programme and the Nutrition Foundation’s Food Week, and partner on key initiatives with organisations such as Dietitians NZ.

* Some 60 per cent have registered dietitians or nutritionists on their staff to advise on nutritional profile of foods, while others have them on contract or engage them as advisers.

* Some 70-80 per cent have policies on nutrient guidelines, workplace health & wellness and health & nutrition.

* Many spend a great deal of time and money on improving the nutrient profile of foods, especially in relation to sodium, sugar, fat, and increasing fruit, vegetables, and fibre.

* Many voluntarily put nutrition information on food labels – the most common being the voluntary Health Star Rating scheme (there are now nearly 1000 products on supermarket shelves with a star), the Heart Foundation Tick, the percentage Daily Intake Guide and nutrient content claims.

In addition, FGC has driven two recent initiatives which are aimed directly at educating people on making healthier choices.

Our Healthier New Zealanders Initiative is aligned with the CGF’s Health & Wellness Pillar and focuses on five themes: employee health & wellness; company nutrition policies and product

formulation; product labelling, consumer information and education; advertising to children, and scaling up community programmes. Our website has more information on these.

FGC’s other recent initiative has been the production of a four-part video series on healthy eating and living hosted by top dietitian and Registered Nutritionist Nikki Hart, which discusses topics such as creating an energy gap to prevent weight gain, identifying snacks and treats, having a shopping plan to avoid unnecessary purchases, and eating better to live longer. These are well worth a look – you can see these via our website.

Concerns around the diabetes epidemic are real but we know that a large proportion of cases can be prevented by making simple lifestyle changes, and efforts such as those I have mentioned play an important part in that.

(as published in FMCG Business magazine)