World leading actions in the food and nutrition system



TYPE Prevention Centre News

‘Supporting priority actions in the food and nutrition system’ has been one of the most ambitious Prevention Centre projects in recent years. Funded under the MRFF Boosting Prevention Health Research Program, the project is soon wrapping up after an impressive three years of intense research producing a wide range of initiatives and outputs.

In early 2018, Professor Amanda Lee from University of Queensland, Professor Sharon Friel from Australian National University, and Professor Anna Peeters and Associate Professor Gary Sacks from Deakin University were brought together as the project’s lead investigators to help tackle the issue of poor diet as the leading preventable risk factor contributing to the burden of disease in Australia and globally.

The project has built on previous Prevention Centre research to identify what influences public policy and actions for nutrition to better understand the key leverage points for intervention in the food system. Collaboration across the different tertiary institutions provides policy makers and health practitioners with accessible information on the current state of Australian food environments and evidence-based policy actions to help improve population nutrition and health.

Associate Professor Gary Sacks said the Prevention Centre project has helped position Australia on the world stage, earning considerable praise from the global group the researchers co-founded with others – INFORMAS (International Network for Food and Obesity/Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) Research, Monitoring and Action Support). “INFORMAS, now active in more than 60 countries, is leading the way in monitoring food environments globally, and Australia’s contribution is in big part thanks to the way this project helped us to build strong working relationships with governments and other stakeholders,” he said.

Some of the key achievements of the project to date have included:

  • Launch of Australia’s first Food Environment Dashboard bringing together the best available and most up-to-date data on all aspects of Australia’s food environments including key indicators of the healthiness of our food supply, and the ways in which foods are labelled, priced and promoted
  • New evidence demonstrating that healthy, sustainable diets can be less expensive than the current Australian diet, although they are still unaffordable for low-income groups, particularly for those living in remote areas of Australia
  • Development of Healthy Diets ASAP (Australian Standardised Affordability and Pricing) methods protocols for use with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and low socioeconomic groups
  • A deep understanding of the regulatory governance factors that influence the development and implementation of food marketing, labelling, taxation and composition policies
  • A recipe of regulatory governance conditions that are necessary or sufficient to achieve positive public health nutrition policy outcomes.

Along with dozens of papers and journal articles published that demonstrate the value of prevention, this project has helped create capacity for research impact and supported many PhD students and early to mid-career researchers. In fact, Associate Professor Sacks credits the experience and exposure he secured in his leadership role on this project as contributing to his successful NHMRC Investigator Grant application.

“The work of the Prevention Centre has helped highlight the importance of monitoring food environments, given that unhealthy diets are one of the biggest risk factors for disease in Australia,” he said. “Previously it has been difficult getting research funding for monitoring specifically and the Prevention Centre helped fill that critical gap. We are proud to see that the value of monitoring now has the recognition it deserves.”

For Professor Amanda Lee the project has helped raise recognition of the important role of the food and nutrition system in human and planetary health. “It was a great opportunity to identify how the different components of the food and nutrition system fit together, and to highlight different approaches to tackling key leverage points,” she said. “We greatly appreciated the support of the Prevention Centre in capturing, highlighting, and promoting our achievements. This exposure has assisted in the translation of evidence, such as inclusion in the draft National Obesity Strategy of ongoing GST exemption of basic, healthy foods in Australia. The project has also helped secure ongoing funding and enhance partnerships.

“This project had several ‘soft edges’ which allowed freedom for capacity building and to respond opportunistically to emerging priorities. Such flexibility allowed us to pivot quickly and look at new issues like the impact of COVID-19. This work helped highlight inadequacies in welfare policy settings in Australia, and the ongoing impact of food insecurity.”

Professor Sharon Friel led the project’s research in the field of regulatory governance and food policies and noted the creativity, innovation and complementarity between the range of projects and issues over the years.

“There was incredible innovation and use of different disciplinary methodologies, which doesn’t happen very often or very well,” she said. “It was lovely to be part of these theoretical and methodological innovations especially as we were asking questions that really matter and conducting research for a purpose. Our research is having a real societal impact, including policy and political impact as well as relevance for business and the retail environment. This is a real celebration of evidence-based research that can help make a moral and business case for public health action. “

Improving the understanding of the current state of Australian food environments and how best to intervene at key leverage points across a variety of policy domains will help inform Australia’s transition to a nutritious, equitable and sustainable food system in line with COP26 ideals. The Prevention Centre’s project has created low-cost, translatable and scalable solutions that can benefit communities around the world.

Check out our new project page devoted to supporting priority actions in the food and nutrition system that brings together all the key publications and resources.