During the technical meeting held in the Vatican, FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva pointed out that junk food is an obstacle to a healthy diet.
The globalized food system is not providing people with the nutrition they need to live a healthy life, but is contributing to obesity and overweight, especially in countries that import most of their food, Graziano da Silva said.
“Unfortunately, cheap industrialized products and food are much more acceptable for international trade,” the FAO director warned, addressing participants in a technical workshop on food safety and healthy nutrition organized by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
The problem is widespread in small island developing nations in the Pacific, which must import most of their food, with obesity rates ranging from more than 30 percent of the population in Fiji to 80 percent among women in American Samoa. In at least 10 Pacific island countries, more than 50 percent (and in some up to 90 percent) of the population is overweight. Excessive consumption of imported industrialized foods high in salt, sodium, sugar and trans fat is the main cause of this situation.
Estimates show that today 2.6 billion people are overweight and that the prevalence of obesity in the global population has increased from 11.7 percent in 2012 to 13.2 percent in 2016.
“If we don’t take urgent action to stop the rise of obesity, we will soon have more obese than undernourished people in the world. There are several fundamental factors – he added – behind the global obesity pandemic. “Unhealthy diet is the most important,” said Graziano da Silva.
The greater availability and affordability of various energy foods, with a high content of fat, sugar and salt, whose sales are stimulated by intensive marketing and advertising campaigns, was pointed out.
“Fast and unhealthy food is the best example. This type of food is cheaper and easier to access and prepare than fresh food, especially for the urban poor,” said Graziano.
However, the consumption of these cheap foods comes at a high cost to society, as obesity is a risk factor for many non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some types of cancer.
Countries should have laws that protect healthy, local food and encourage the private sector to produce healthier food. This could include taxes on harmful foods; clear and informative labeling of products; restrictions on the advertising of unhealthy food for children; and, reducing the level of salt and sugar used in food production, or even banning the use of some ingredients, such as trans fats.
Governments should also encourage food diversification and facilitate market access for local produce from family farms, for example, with school meal programs that link local produce to school lunches, thereby boosting the local economy while promoting healthy children’s diets.
Trade agreements must be designed in a way that makes nutritious local food cheaper to produce, while limiting the arrival of cheap imported food that is high in fat, sugar and salt.
Finally, the FAO Director-General emphasized the importance of education, including school programs that teach children about healthy cooking and healthy food choices, and greater access to information for consumers to promote awareness of healthier food choices.