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Fight the double burden of malnutrition with dairy foods

Jun 12. 2019
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By SPECIAL TO THE NATION

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IN THAILAND, our appetite for dairy has expanded in recent years.

The market for dairy products has been valued at over Bt92 billion and consumers are becoming increasingly aware of how dairy can play an important role in their diet. Dairy’s growing popularity corresponds with trends that we have seen across the Asean region as consumers’ food preferences change, fuelled by urbanisation and rising disposable incomes.

These changes to the way we shop and eat are having a huge impact on our relationship with food. It’s an area where we, as food producers, play an important role in making sure the products we put on the supermarket shelves will make a positive impact on consumers.

Beyond hunger

Economic conditions in Thailand and across Southeast Asia have improved rapidly in recent decades, succeeding in lifting millions out of poverty. Fewer people now need to worry about getting enough to eat, and we should celebrate the huge advances we’ve made in combating hunger.

Today the question is no longer whether we can fill our plates, but rather what we’re filling them with. 

Changes to our diet and consumption habits have created new challenges, leading to the “double burden of malnutrition” – where under-nutrition and obesity co-exist in the same population.

Rates of obesity in Thailand have grown at a staggering pace. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of obese people in Thailand grew by more than a quarter. And while Thais have access to more food, it often comes at the expense of quality nutrition. Child wasting caused by poor nutrition, where children are underweight for their height, increased from 5 per cent to 7 per cent in Thailand between 2006 and 2012. 

Research from the World Health Organisation shows that both poor nutrition and obesity are among the top 10 leading risk factors for disease globally, leading to a growing burden of non-communicable diseases. The rising prevalence of these chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart conditions have a knock-on effect across society, leading to increased mortality, greater strain on healthcare systems and lost productivity in the workforce. 

Authorities agree that this is a complex problem with multiple causes. To successfully address the double burden of malnutrition and obesity requires a concerted effort from multiple stakeholders, including governments and the private sector. 

I believe that the food and beverage industry needs to take steps to combat this issue by helping consumers make better choices about nutrition for themselves and their families.

As food producers, we have the resources, expertise and customer relationships to start reshaping the food system so more people can access healthy food that is both affordable and delicious. The food industry has a major part to play in tackling these issue through product development and innovation. 

Busy lives, healthy choices

In Southeast Asia, obesity has increased hand-in-hand with rising incomes. Increased food intake and a reliance on unhealthy “convenience” foods are both contributing factors. Obesity and poor nutrition is also associated with urbanisation. People living in urban areas in Vietnam or Laos were more than three times more likely to be obese than their rural counterparts. 

But how do we help these consumers make better choices when faced with time-poor urban lifestyles that prioritise cost and convenience? Giving consumers a “nudge” to encourage better behaviours is an effective tool that has been shown to help people fight obesity. By making it easier to choose products that form part of a balanced, healthy diet, we can have a notable impact on health outcomes. 

Reformulation allows food producers to give this nudge by improving the nutritional quality of their food products. In Thailand, supermarket chain Tesco have made changes to their own-brand bakery and drinks range to remove trans-fats and reduce sugar. Beyond the supermarket shelves, food businesses can also play a part in meeting the need for convenience by providing nutritious, fresh options on the go.

Consumers in Southeast Asia are increasingly eating out of home, which gives food producers an opportunity to work alongside the food service industry to ensure menus offer healthier choices for consumers that are not only convenient and affordable, but also great tasting. 

Sedentary lifestyles are another major risk factor for obesity. Providing tailored food products that deliver optimum nutrition can help to support physical activity at all life stages.

Partnerships between industry bodies, governments and academics are also taking steps to educate consumers about healthier food choices. 

In Thailand, Food Industry Asia recently signed a partnership agreement with Mahidol University to formalise their efforts to enhance nutrition communications in schools.

Food producers can extend this educational approach to help consumers take control of their nutrition choices with simple interventions such as clear labelling and responsible marketing. For Fonterra, this comes alongside education and advocacy activities to raise awareness of the value of dairy nutrition in healthy, balanced diets.

By taking steps to educate and enable consumers to make better food choices, we can get closer to our goal of delivering quality nutrition to all Thais and combating malnutrition in all its forms.

Contributed by PAUL RICHARDS, MD, Fonterra Brands Thailand.

 

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