The Role of Processed Food in Tackling Obesity and Undernutrition in Southeast Asia

Industry must employ a food-based strategy to tackle the double burden of malnutrition across Southeast Asia, said Dr Regina Moench-Pfanner, founder and Chief Executive Officer of ibn360, at an FIA Lunch Series event on 25 August in Singapore. This strategy, she proposed, should include the re-engineering of processed foods, a platform for shared research and innovation through entrepreneurial incubation.

The phenomenon of increasing urbanisation worldwide has led to greater access to excess calories, said Dr Moench-Pfanner. Processed foods have become a significant part of the daily diet for many, and for rural and urban households alike. As such, consumer behaviour – in relation to food-purchasing and dietary inclinations and choices – is largely similar across households.

Citing the 2016 Global Nutrition Report, Dr Moench-Pfanner noted how every country has a nutrition problem. Southeast Asia, she said, suffers from the double burden of malnutrition – undernutrition and over-nutrition that can lead to both stunting and obesity. On both ends of the spectrum, the low-income population tends to make purchasing and consumption decisions based on price, more so than taste and health.

As such, there is an existing stigma of processed food – that all processed food items are junk food. However, Dr Moench-Pfanner stressed, this is a sweeping and inaccurate generalisation. Certain processed foods can aid in rehabilitation, and improve an individual’s health and nutritional status. It all boils down to the ingredients used in the food item, she said, and who is eating the food – given differing phenotypes and nutritional needs.

Dr Moench-Pfanner and seminar participants – mainly representatives from academia and industry – agreed that food, nutrition and eating are highly emotional topics, particularly in the decision-making process. As such, they said, consumers have pre-set ways of thinking and behaviours. Education, therefore, is critical in leading consumers to making more informed choices for healthier lifestyles, as well as to understand the importance of portion control and precautionary measures in food preparation.

Industry has an important role to play in all of this. Dr Moench-Pfanner proposed implementing a food-based strategy, in order to redress the energy balance in diets. She suggested that the strategy be modelled after the government approach of nutrition improvement in the early 20th century, when mass fortification helped to eradicate major public health problems in industrialised countries. However, instead of staple foods fortified with single nutrients, the modified solution should focus on processed foods re-engineered to promote health, and help close the nutrient gaps in modern diets.

Furthermore, a neutral platform for shared research should be established, she said. This platform would help to develop standards for improving health-promoting processed food products. This would include looking at opportunities along the value chain to improve inputs, processes and outputs.

Lastly, Dr Moench-Pfanner proposed the establishment of an entrepreneurial incubation platform to attract interest from start-ups, in particular, toward innovation along the supply chain. One activity could be a “food hackathon”, where food scientists, chemists, packagers, technologists and marketers come together to address current nutrition challenges.

Dr Moench-Pfanner emphasised that a multi-stakeholder, whole-of-system approach is necessary in tackling the double burden of malnutrition. It is also helpful, she said, to look at the problem across the entire lifecycle. While governments should not be held solely responsible for the impacts of malnutrition, the food and beverage industry should not feel like it has to tackle these issues on its own either.

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