‘Prohibit advertising of unhealthy food’

Consumption of ready-to-eat factory foods and beverages is increasing worldwide. Also in Belgium. How did it happen?

A gigantic paradox exists in the United States today: The most overfed people in the world are also the ones who suffer the most from malnutrition. Nearly 57 percent of Americans’ total energy comes from high-calorie, ultra-processed foods, which have been deprived of virtually all nutritional value. For American children, it is even up to 65 percent of the total energy intake. The United Kingdom is also a champion of factory food consumption. Ultra-processed products make up 56.8 percent of total energy intake.

Since the 1990s, the trend towards more factory food was first apparent in affluent countries and later also in middle-income countries. As food became cheaper and cheaper, more people gained access to it. Today, factory food has conquered the whole world. In addition to a cheap price, increasing urbanization, tendency towards consumerism and individualism, lack of time due to long working hours or commuting times and insufficient food knowledge and cooking skills also play a role. For example, the average American now spends only six minutes preparing a meal and eats on average every fifth of his meals in the car.

The world is a candy store

The food industry has also transformed our society into an obese food environment, an environment that constantly encourages people to eat unhealthy foods. Over the years, the diversity and variety of factory foods has increased sharply. Because it is so cheap to produce, around 75 percent of the portfolio of the largest Belgian companies and supermarkets consists of ultra-processed, high-calorie foods. We are, as it were, constantly in a big candy store. No wonder our willpower is reduced to zero. And often we are not even aware of it. In addition, specific properties of factory foods such as texture, taste and energy density promote overconsumption and even dependence.

In Belgium, about a third of the energy people consume comes from highly processed industrial products, according to the 2014 National Food Consumption Survey, which is only half what the British and Americans consume, but still too much. Ultra-processed products should be only a small addition to the diet.

The Belgians are particularly fond of processed meats, cakes, pies, pastries, biscuits and soft drinks, all products that the Flemish Institute for Healthy Living puts away in a leftover group (the red ball) next to the Food Triangle. So to avoid as much as possible.

Young children in particular in Belgium get a remarkably large part of their energy from factory food (33.3 percent). Women are more likely to choose unprocessed or minimally processed foods. If you eat a meal with the family several times, you also consume more unprocessed food.

Highly educated people also more often choose unprocessed or minimally processed foods. The reason for this is largely due to the higher cost of a healthy diet. It is true that ultra-processed foods (0.55 euros / 100 kcal) are significantly cheaper than minimally processed or unprocessed foods (1.29 euros / 100 kcal), according to a study by nutritionist and nutritionist Stefanie Vandevijvere (Sciensano).

This means that in times of increasing longevity, highly processed products gradually take precedence over healthy alternatives. According to an ING survey conducted in March this year, 44 percent are trying to save on food. However, a choice between a healthy diet and your wallet should not be a choice.

1 + 1 free

Another major pain point in industrial food is the billions the food industry spends on marketing strategies, ranging from attractive packaging, social media, sponsorship deals, product placement and TV commercials. Real food can not compete with it.

There is particular concern about advertising unhealthy foods for children. Nearly 90 percent of all food advertisements for children deal with unhealthy food, with or without the help of child numbers. Studies show that there may be a link between advertising aimed at children and young people on the one hand and obesity rates on the other.

The food industry may have its Belgian charter, where marketing and advertising to children is only allowed for products that meet certain nutritional criteria (less fat, sugar and salt), but it is a voluntary charter and the criteria depend quite a lot on the lax side, according to the consumer organization Test-Achats.

According to obesity doctor Lieve De Lille, children simply should not advertise food, except for fruit and vegetables. “To me, advertising candy is just as wrong as advertising cigarettes,” she told Knack last year. ‘If you know how being overweight and obese destroys your body, I do not understand how you can oppose such a ban. And why not an ad that playfully shows what healthy food is? The government has every interest in such advertisements. ‘

But not only children and young people are sensitive to advertising, adults are also affected by it. Even the highly educated consumer can hardly resist the many promotions in the supermarket’s weekly flyers.

Stefanie Vandevijvere spent a year reviewing the advertising brochures from the five largest Belgian supermarket chains and discovered that a little more than half of all campaigns are in advertising brochures for ultra-processed foods. Less than 10 percent is on fresh fruits and vegetables. Aldi most often promotes fresh fruits and vegetables in its brochure, Colruyt does the worst in that area. Eye-catching: On the front of advertising brochures there are usually many healthy products, but on the inside you will find them almost nowhere. Sciensano says stricter corporate commitments and crucial policy choices are needed to curb the marketing of unhealthy products.

“It would not be a bad idea to ban advertising for such products,” says Vandevijvere. ‘A recent study from London banning the marketing of unhealthy food in public transport showed a clear effect of such a measure. In particular, purchases of sweets and chocolate fell by 19.4 percent. ‘

Now that a full shopping cart is getting more and more expensive, people are only too happy to take advantage of promotions. And the more the consumer’s budget shrinks, the harder the battle between supermarket chains becomes. Just think of the striking 2 + 2 free promotions from all kinds of supermarkets a few months ago. You save in your wallet, but unfortunately also on your health.

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