Healthy Living Alliance steering conversations about healthy food and healthy living

The Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA) held its quarterly panel discussion at the Clico Boutique Hotel. HEALA advocates for communities to organize and mobilize around policy and the right to affordable, nutritious food.

The discussion presented the media with an opportunity to learn about the role the big food plays in frustrating the implementation of lifesaving health policies and thwarting HEALA’s goal of ensuring “equitable access to healthy food” for all South Africans. The panel, led by HEALA’s programme manager Nzama Mbalati, legal researcher and PHD candidate Petronell Kruger, and Policy and Research Manager Angelika Grimbeek, was facilitated by Newzroom Afrika news anchor, Michelle Craig.

With South Africa under threat from the proliferation – and preference – for Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs) packaged and marketed by major food industry players, it is critical for organizations like HEALA to redirect the conversation to the dangers posed by noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other risk factors associated with unhealthy food choices.

Some of these include consuming an unhealthy diet high in sugary meals, salty foods, and fatty foods. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that countries implement interventions for Front of Package Labels (FoPL), strict marketing restrictions, and taxation as a means of fostering a culture of responsible food production and processing by large food producers, marketing institutions, and government agencies in order to steer consumers towards adopting healthy food choices and avoid NCDs.

Big Food Producers and marketing

According to Zukiswa Zimela, Communications Manager at HEALA, most of the non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and some cancers can be attributed to the overconsumption of foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat.

However, attempts to reduce the overconsumption of these foods are made difficult due to the proliferation of these foods in our supermarkets and the persuasive nature of the media and brand marketing strategies employed by the food and beverage industry through “sleek” marketing.

Angelika Grimbeek, manager of policy and research, says that a lot of people are unaware that common foods may in fact be harmful to their health.

For years, adverts and “health” claims have been utilized by large food corporations to sway consumer choices. Big bucks have been generated off of selling consumers foods and drinks loaded with sugar, salt, fat, and artificial sweeteners. Diseases like Type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke or heart disease, are becoming increasingly common in our communities, added Grimbeek.

“Big food businesses have used adverts and health claims to influence what we eat for years. Massive profits have been made selling us products high in sugar, salt, fat and added sweetener. We are seeing more and more people in our communities suffering from diseases like Type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure that can lead to stroke or heart disease,” she said.

Healthy living is expensive: truth or myth?

For Patronell Kruger, the notion that a diet high in unhealthy foods is more expensive than one rich in nutritious foods is false.

“We must face the high cost of unhealthy diet and the consequences of noncommunicable diseases. The monetary burden of caring for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes has both immediate and far-reaching consequences. The cost of insulin is high. South Africans lose an average of R2,700 per year due to NCD, according to a study done by Wits University. That’s an eight-month COVID-19 award,” Kruger calculated.

South Africa became the first African nation to tax suger sweetened beverages on April 1, 2018. This regulation has caused beverage corporations to lower sugar-sweetened drink intake, but it will take more to shift behaviours.

The WHO studies demonstrate that a correctly planned tax that raises retail prices by 20% or more can reduce consumption proportionally and encourage healthier alternatives.

Mbalati noted that the food and beverage industry historically resisted new regulations and policies since major corporations are profit-driven. This makes advocacy a battleground between big industry, the government, and organizations like HEALA that advocate good policy.

Mbalati said the government sometimes speaks alone and the big industry sometimes misrepresents information to deceive consumers.

HEALA said that a South African HPL study indicated that the food and beverage industry misrepresents evidence and confuses the public by changing packaging.

Mbalati has urged media to present genuine and practical stories of persons recovering from terrible dietary choices.

“More human stories are needed. We must cease intellectualizing the problem with scholarly opinion pieces. I want to read about a diabetic. I want to know about her problems, food, transportation, and medication. “We need to humanize these stories,” Mbalati says.