DIPLOMATIC COURIER: Tell us about the work the IFIC Foundation does.
KIMBERLY REED: The mission of the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC Foundation) is to effectively communicate science-based information on health, nutrition, and food safety for the public good. We just celebrated our 20th year, and we focus on helping not only consumers, but also health professionals, journalists, and others who provide information to consumers on the science and facts behind food. This can range from healthy weight and active lifestyles to food safety concerns. We do not lobby or take political action; we participate in civil society through educational efforts, including through our award-winning website: www.foodinsight.org.
DC: The IFIC Foundation recently organized the Global Diet and Physical Activity Communications Summit in New York City. Tell us about the gathering.
KR: In September 2011, the United Nations, with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO) held a very historic meeting on non-communicable disease (NCD) prevention and control. We saw that we had a key role in addressing the diet and physical activity aspect of this, because effective, science-based communications with consumers is part of the solution for NCD prevention and control. So while the UN was meeting at the Head of State and government level, we gathered just a few blocks away to focus exclusively on insights to motivate healthful, active lifestyles.
We had a full day of great conversation around topics such as explaining the rise of NCDs, understanding consumer behavior, and best practices. We discussed how to talk about energy balance to help reduce the incidence of NCDs, as well as the role of different stakeholders in this discussion; not only governments, but also the private sector, non-profits, civil society members, and journalists have a role to play in conversation. Some highlights from the Summit included a keynote speech from U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA; leading officials from the European Union and representatives from 34 countries, both on panels and in the audience, came together to talk about responses that should be based on the needs of local populations and communications strategy. The Summit's proceedings will be published in a peer-reviewed journal, called Nutrition Reviews this year.
DC: What outcome do you expect the Global Summit to have on the topic of NCDs?
KR: A key outcome of our Global Summit, which complimented the simultaneous discussion at the UN, is the importance of using consumer-focused health and nutrition communication messages. The WHO is responsible for giving a report on how they will work with multiple stakeholders by the end of 2012; national governments have to present similar plans by 2013. Then in 2014, the UN will revisit the topic again in a comprehensive review and assessment to see what accomplishments have been made. Because the messages we discussed can be easily and cost-effectively tailored based on location, need, culture, and level of health literacy, we hope that countries around the world will incorporate consumer messaging into their responses as part of their efforts to make measurable progress on NCD prevention and control by 2014. We want to be a part of this conversation and be able to help by providing our educational resources.
DC: How effective do you think is it to address NCDs on a global platform?
KR: The UN meeting on this topic was groundbreaking—the UN at the General Assembly has only come together once before to address a health issue, and that was in 2001 on the topic of HIV/AIDS. The UN’s focus at the Head of State and government level brings further attention to important diseases on the global stage: the top four being heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and lung disease; but also some other NCDs that are recognized in UN's declaration, including Alzheimer's Disease, mental health, oral health, and others. It is good that they are raising awareness on a global, high-profile level as many countries are tackling these problems, and it is good that stakeholders from across the spectrum are being brought into the conversation. However, through our consumer research, we have found that responses are most effective on the local level, where they are based on the needs of the population. The old adage says it perfectly: “think globally, but act locally.”
DC: What are some of the ways to address the inequities between developing and developed countries in how NCDs not only affect populations, but also how they are addressed?
KR: It is important that the entire world has adequate food. In 2050, the world will be home to nine billion people that will all need to be fed; we are at seven billion people today. According to the UN, we will need 100 percent more food, and 70 percent of it must come from efficiency-enhancing technologies. We want to make sure that everyone has a safe, affordable, and nutritious food supply. Modern food production, including through biotechnology, is an affordable, cost-effective way to help feed our world, and we try to educate about these opportunities. However, we also want to make sure we are a healthful society, and local civil society groups can take on the role of educating local populations about nutrition, energy balance, and healthful choices.
DC: There has been some controversy over biotechnology and genetically engineered crops, with some concerns over the diversity of the global food supply. What are your thoughts?
KR: Food biotechnology is key for feeding our growing planet, and actually has several benefits. First, it allows farmers to grow more food to help feed the world’s growing population. Not only do insect-and virus-resistant crop varieties produce hardier plants, leading to higher crop yields, but also crops are being engineered to grow in places where they would not survive before. Second, the food produced may be more healthful and nutritious, as crops with enhanced nutritional traits make their way to the supermarket. These foods may help to combat chronic diseases by providing more healthful compounds, including increased levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and decreased amounts of unhealthful fats; scientists have also begun to target allergy-causing proteins. Finally, genetically engineered crops aid in protecting the environment by producing insect- and virus-resistant crops, thereby decreasing the amount of pesticides used in farming. Decreasing pesticide use has a positive impact on the health and well-being of wildlife, decreases farmers’ exposure to pesticides, and contributes to a cleaner water supply.
DC: What are some of the effects of NCDs on women's participation in their local economies and societies?
KR: Mothers are often the key decision-makers about what is eaten in the household, and all around the world, they are a great resource for education of a community about food safety and nutrition. We want to help mothers understand what impact food and physical activity can have on NCDs.
DC: Do you reach out to women through mobile technologies?
KR: We partner with sister organizations around the world as part of a global network of food information organizations. We communicate with them on a regular basis and share resources to help each other understand issues. Through this network, we are able to deliver local responses. We are also very focused on the Internet, and the Internet and social media have no boundaries. We get our message out to hundreds of millions of people, and share the latest news through Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, as well as through our monthly Food Insight online newsletter that is emailed to thousands. Our website is visited by people all over the world.
DC: As fast food chains and the easy availability of fast food becomes more international, what effects on global health and nutrition do you expect?
KR: Food is about choice, and having a wide variety of food and food vendors—from quick serve restaurants, to making food yourself from fresh groceries, to microwavable and canned food—should all be options. Everyone should have access to those options, and education is part of that process. As people make choices in restaurants, in the grocery store, or on farms, key messages such as calories, energy balance, and nutrition should be in the forefront. Everyone should have access to food, in a variety of means, but with that comes a responsibility to understand the facts behind the food. We launched a special initiative called “Understanding Our Food,” and have helpful “farm to fork” resources on our website to demonstrate how the food supply chain—which includes farmers, food manufacturers, distributors, grocers, food service establishments, and others—is able to bring us a variety of safe, high-quality foods every day that also are tasty, convenient, nutritious, fresh and affordable.
DC: You have talked a lot about energy balance. What can consumers do to reach this?
KR: We spoke with a lot of parents about good messages that would lead to behavior changes. While we focused on the United States, we believe it is a model for communicating about healthy weight and lifestyles that can be used globally. Some messages that worked well with American parents to help move them to change included: “Know your number”—learning how many calories to consume in a day; “Fun stuff counts as exercise!'—get active with the family, whether it is soccer in the backyard or dancing to music; and “Small steps = big changes” —serve smaller portions to help curb calories. Also, we found parents in the U.S. were more responsive to positive messages about food, rather than negative messages.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's January 2012 issue.