In the East Asia and Pacific region, obesity-promoting environments are driving an epidemic of child overweight and obesity through the increasing promotion and sale of unhealthy food and drink. Food retail businesses play an important role in shaping the food retail environment through their marketing practices, which ultimately influence dietary preferences and consumption patterns.
What is a food retail environment? It encompasses all the places where adults and children buy and consume food. But a major shift is taking place: fresh food markets are being replaced by supermarkets; restaurants serving traditional food are being replaced by fast food joints; and small independent vendors are being replaced by big international branded shops and outlets. This shift brings some benefits such as convenience, food safety, a wider range of products and sometimes lower prices. However, it also creates an environment where multiple marketing strategies are used to target customers, including children, to encourage them to buy food and drink that are high in unhealthy fat, sugar and salt.
UNICEF research conducted in Latin America and the Caribbean found that half of the decisions made by families, including children, when buying food and drink are influenced by marketing strategies within shops. Analyses conducted by UNICEF in China, the Philippines and Vietnam demonstrated the increase in sales of pre-packaged unhealthy food and drink. The consequence has been a rise in unhealthy diets which are linked to obesity, physical and mental health problems, and a higher risk of death.
What can be done? As we describe in a new video and infographic, every child has the right to healthy food that is available: in shops and stores close to where people live, affordable: at prices that everyone can afford, appealing: presented in an attractive manner, and aspirational: marketed and promoted to children and their families in a manner that motivates them to buy.
To reshape urban food retail environments in East Asia and the Pacific for healthier diets, UNICEF and Deakin University have forged a three-year partnership that is supported by the Pictet Foundation. This builds on a regional knowledge and action agenda developed through previous support by the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation that aims to improve the ‘4As’ for healthier food and drink.
More specifically, the partnership will:
- Build the evidence base to show how food retail marketing influences people’s food purchasing habits and how retail food environments can be modified to promote healthier options in East Asia and the Pacific region. This type of evidence is essential as the basis for government policies, for retailers to identify opportunities to become healthier, and for the general public to understand how the environment affects their food preferences and choices.
- Support governments to introduce, strengthen and enforce policies, regulatory frameworks and strategies that safeguard children from the influence of unhealthy food marketing early in life. Key policies include:
- fiscal measures that promote healthier food and drink including taxes on unhealthy products such as sugar-sweetened beverages;
- regulating the sales and marketing of unhealthy food and drink to children;
- front-of-pack nutrition labelling and menu labelling signalling which items are high in unhealthy fats, sugar and/or salt; and
- requiring healthy food environments in childcare settings, schools and at child-focused events
- Work with food retailers who are crucial actors in influencing healthier diets through food prices, food placement, food promotion and food packaging. Responsible business conduct through food marketing in retail promotes respect to children’s right to health and adequate nutrition. Healthy and sustainable retail contributes to the progress needed in Sustainable Development Goals 2 and 3 – to “improve nutrition” and to “ensure healthy lives and wellbeing for everyone, at all ages”.
- Form a multi-stakeholder alliance for information exchange and collective action to reshape the urban food retail environment across the region. This will include learning from, and sharing experiences with, other regions of the world.
This is the second of a series of blogs in which UNICEF highlights actions that need to be taken in the region to improve the obesity-promoting environment for all children and make healthy eating easier.