For most, this election will be like no other in living memory, except for those who can remember the disruptions of WWII.

It’s doubtful there will be the usual discussion and scrutiny of policy, instead replaced by the focus on Covid-19 and answering the growing concern about how the heck, having elected to go down an elimination route, we deal with this virus that will likely be globetrotting for years to come.

Other aspects of public health are also unlikely to be discussed this election, such as policies to promote good nutrition, tackle obesity levels, and increase activity.

Obesity continues to be a major problem. Our rate of 29% of our population being obese is far too high. Canada, the UK, and Australia are all below us at 28%. We are better than the US, which is at 34%, but that’s no reason to pat ourselves on the back.

As a country, we know we must take action to bring that statistic down, and the food industry has been playing its part.

A report by manufacturers, retailers, and fast-food representatives made 51 recommendations to the Government covering moves we know would each play a part in helping this: food and beverage formulation and innovation, employee health and wellness, community and education initiatives, food and beverage marketing, and labelling.

Product reformulation is a standout, and is where the industry has been making huge strides over the past decade or so, reducing saturated fats, trans-fats, free sugars and salt in foods and beverages. As a result, there are now more healthier options across many categories than we’ve ever had.

Reformulation is a powerful way of addressing the factors contributing to obesity. By developing products with reduced negative nutrients and increased positive nutrients, there’s no need for consumers to change their behaviour to get healthier foods – they simply make a choice.

Since the report, the industry has been continuing with this work. As well as doing their own thing, they have been working with the Heart Foundation to set targets for priority categories. They involve high-volume, lower-cost products for maximum public health impact. Despite this, there’s still a gap in our knowledge of what makes up the diet of today’s children.

The report called on the Government to undertake a children’s National Nutrition Survey, and that’s what FGC is calling on all political parties to commit to it as a matter of urgency – because the latest information we have is 18 years old!

Nutritionists, officials and the industry agree much has changed in that time, and policy-makers are at worst flying blind or at best defaulting to more up-to-date Australian data, which doesn’t take into account any unique factors that arise due to the diversity of our population. With good nutrition at stake, it beggars belief the Ministry of Health has allowed this data to become so outdated.

The last survey collected information for children aged 5-14, measuring things such as how much fruit and fast food they were eating, how much exercise they were getting, and sugar, salt, fat, and vitamins and minerals intake – all crucial for determining changes policymakers and industry should be targeting.

We know many of the measures collected in 2002 will have changed dramatically. Think of the effect of screen time on exercise. In 2002, television was still the No 1 screen in children’s lives. Not so now, as YouTube has overtaken television, and it would be interesting to see where relative newcomer TikTok sits.

These are things we need to know more about. A fresh survey is needed to form an evidence base to set targets and direct efforts for reformulation and education.

It’s not just industry pressing for this. There’s support from public health, non-government organisations, academics and researchers, who agree we desperately need to know what New Zealanders are eating so we can effectively tackle the obesity issue.

(originally published in FMCG Business magazine)

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