Thursday, March 19, 2015

What is "healthy food environment'?-Can a public policy create it?

Remember how our thinking about smoking changed over the last fifty years? What was unimaginable then, namely banning smoking in public places, is now a reality in almost all countries across the world. Why did this happen at all? Because of the overwhelming evidence that tobacco is too dangerous to the people and the society as a whole, and a collective approach was needed to curb the smoking practice with a punitive regime that would push more and more people out of the vicious circle of smokers. Warning on the cigarette packs, high taxation on tobacco products and banning of smoking in public can be considered as restriction on the personal freedom, yet we did it and the result is there for all to see. It is not that tobacco has vanished from the face of this planet as such a thing can never happen when more than 7 billion people are living in this world with at least a few who can be considered incorrigible to follow the societal values. We can see this in alcoholism and psychotropic drug addiction with some not amenable to reforming them selves easily. Can food be the next mass action issue and the world has to unite to bring sanity among the people vis-a-vis addiction to unhealthy foods?

It is not that world is not doing any thing in this regard as every country is concerned about the adverse impact of "bad" foods on the health of its citizens and to a limited extent preventive policies are put in place to curb consumption of bad foods. Unfortunately different people have different notions when it comes to defining a bad food though every one agrees to the need to safeguard the safety of foods from fraudsters and uncaring food handlers and processors. But unsafe food is not the only bad food though such foods bring about damage to health and life quickly. There are thousands of food products manufactured and marketed by the food industry which harm the health slowly over a long period of time and they are also bad foods to be restrained from reaching the vulnerable consumer. Here is where class action is needed with contributions from the government, activists, legal fraternity, consumer groups, public bodies etc through concerted effort and coordinated programs. 

There appears to be some movement by the legal fraternity in the US to sue the food industry collectively for the cumulative damage wrought on the citizens there through manufacture and marketing of health damaging foods over the last several decades. This reminds us about similar action taken in suing the tobacco industry some years ago through American judicial system with a huge success and it is history that the tobacco industry had to shell out billions of dollars as reparation for its failure to foresee the adverse consequences of suppressing evidence about the dangers of smoking and luring innocent citizens into the dangerous practice of smoking! Similar legal challenge against the food industry cannot be ruled out in that country and if the industry continues to indulge in shenanigans without caring for the well being of its constituency, viz the citizens who provide them with their "bread and butter", a day may not be too far away when they will be forced to face the ignominy that literally "killed" the tobacco industry in the last millennium!  

Without waiting for any move to punish the industry can there be any other alternate options to the consumer community and the policy administrators to do some thing to reverse the present trend of increasing consumption of bad foods and consequently the rapidly hurtling of the country into the abysmal health trap with no hope of redemption? It is in this context that we have to appreciate new initiatives sprouting in many local communities and civic administrations in the form of encouragement to local foods, grading of foods on a uniform health scale and trying to create a healthy food "environment" that will help the much harried consumers to pick and choose foods which are least detrimental to his health. The present labeling system will have to give way to more efficient declarations in terms of nutrition and health. The traffic light system of labeling comes to our mind which has been implemented in some countries which helps "innocent" consumers in avoiding products with "red" light indication and going in for more and more "green" light labels. The healthy food environment movement which originated in Canada which aims to change the community environment and societal attitudes, deserves admiration because of the soundness of its concept and ease with which such environment can be created in public places.

To understand this concept better we have to look at out present food environment and observe how the consumers are behaving when selecting their foods. If we have an environment where only 100% junk foods are available on the table, even the best intentioned consumer will have to eat unhealthy foods only as there is no other alternate option to him. Even if a small sprinkling of healthy foods are included on the table, only iron-willed consumer will go straight to these foods, vast majority rushing to take tastiest foods but unhealthy in nature! Therefore reversing the situation by changing the menu to include predominantly healthy foods and just a few items of unhealthy items, may help many consumers to pick the healthy ones, creating a chain effect and in due course such food service settings will become a "done" thing in many public functions. 

According to the Canadian pioneers of this new strategy to lure away consumes from the clutches of unhealthy foods, an optimum mix of foods for creating a healthy food environment could be to include in the mix of foods offered about 50% high nutrition products, 40% moderately nutritive foods and about 10% junk foods so that no one can complain that one is forced to eat foods not liked by him. This presupposes that foods are graded according to the nutritive value and those who arrange foods are aware of the system. It is here that those in the community with some expertise in food and nutrition can help the organizers to choose the items on the menu as per their health promoting values. As a thumb rule foods made from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, poultry meat and fish with no added sugar, salt and saturated fats can be considered healthy while those made with partially refined raw materials but containing high nutrition components like dairy ingredients, high fiber food components and nutrient rich materials like fruits and vegetables can be considered as moderately healthy foods. Junk foods are just empty calorie rich items containing low levels of health boosting nutrients like proteins, vitamins and minerals, mostly rich in sugar and fat.

Can this approach be tried first in the canteens of state assembly complexes and Lok Sabha buildings, to be progressively introduced in all canteens working in various ministries in the states as well in the center. Railways can be another organization which can try this approach though there could be resistance from many passengers. But with a little bit of patience and perseverance, there is no reason why it would not be a success eventually. Further spread of this concept among thousands of bus stations across the country and temples with large foot prints should also be possible. Future licensing of restaurants must be linked to compulsory inclusion of healthy foods in the menu at least to the extent of 50% of the menu! If even a part of this ambitious program is implemented, the present government in Delhi might become the darling of the nation, remembered by the young generation which will be the long term beneficiary of this visionary attempt.


1 comment:

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