Overweight and obese – the choice is ours as consumers, or is it?

Will people choose to consume healthier, more balanced diets or will the epidemic of cheap foods, high in sugar, salt and fat spread?

We all know consumers drive demand, but that is only to a certain degree. Our behaviours are shaped by context and influenced by marketing. Availability of accurate information, as well as affordability and accessibility of nutritious foods, drive our actions. So yes, we as consumers have a choice, but businesses and government have an obligation to society to create the right environment to enable consumers to make the right choice.

Globally 1.4bn people are overweight or obese driven by cheap calories and changing lifestyles, with Australia as one of the top countries of high levels of obesity. Currently over 50% of the world population does not consume a proper nutritious diet. What does that mean for our future, and that of our children?[1]

A recent study from Deloitte and the World Economic Forum (WEF) looked into how the future of our consumption and the global food systems may unfold in the coming decades. A likely scenario is one where the western life style is introduced to other parts of the world through increased global connectedness and trade efficiencies. It imagines 2030 with the unhealthy consumption of today, but then spread to other parts of the globe. This possible reality is enabled by technology efficiencies in food production and distribution and driven by ever increasing demand that will see trade accelerate as markets boom. Conflicting evidence about desirable diets and a proliferation of labels will have created further confusion and perpetuated unhealthy choices. Obesity and health costs will rise dramatically as billions of consumers transition to a high volume, high calorie, and low nutrient diets.

Now that is a frightening outlook.

We believe however, that we could be at a critical point of inflection. Consumer preference in developed countries is changing to explicitly include health, wellness and sustainability in food purchasing decisions. With the right responses from businesses and government, we could alter the course of our health and food consumption.

So what do we suggest companies, policy makers and social institutions do?

Companies could build on the changing consumer preferences and capture the opportunity by investing in health and nutrition through:

  • New products and services supported by accurate marketing and consumer education to promote healthier diets. Examples of product innovation include formula changes, smaller portion sizes and the introduction of calorie caps. In addition, the provision of digital services linking consumption to individual health implications could impact the wellbeing of consumers while enhancing the brand value
  • Establishing new business models to ensure nutritious diets are accessible and affordable. Technology innovation in the supply chain could play a key role in reducing cost to produce and cost to serve
  • Technologies, infrastructure, equipment and services that preserve nutritional value of foods. This requires a greater focus on time to market and preservation of ‘fresh’.

Proactive policies are critical to the transformation of food systems, for example:

  • Integrating health costs and national capital depletion considerations into food-focused decision-making across national budgets, planning and policies. Examples include the integration of nutrition into education systems and the prioritisation of prevention in health policy linked to dietary choices
  • Redesignin policies to strengthen health outcomes. For example public subsidies could be redirected towards highly nutritious crops, lowering the price points of healthy foods. In complement, social marketing campaigns could promote dietary diversity and the prioritisation of nutrient-rich foods.

With care, policies can direct the power of choices towards more nutritious and sustainable diets while increasing system resilience. Policies can also strengthen integrated efforts in infrastructure, domestic economic policy, financial markets and other areas.

Support from media and influencers will be needed to ensure such priorities are elevated on business and policy agendas and could include:

  • Promoting a new type of eating that supports personal health and reshape perceptions of what foods are desirable
  • Addressing structural inequalities for populations left behind in the evolution of food systems. Social programming can complement government safety nets to protect the most vulnerable.

The future of our global food systems holds risks for (human) sustainability, however also provides great opportunities for our people and businesses to thrive whilst shaping the world we need.

Our choices as consumers, businesses and governments – through action or inaction – will determine our path.

Note: The Deloitte and WEF study explored various likely scenarios based on consumption and market connectedness. It looks into ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘where’ food will be produced and consumed including the possible implications on economic development, sector configuration, network risks, inequality, hunger, poverty and climate change.


[1] http://www3.weforum.org/docs/IP/2016/NVA/WEF_FSA_FutureofGlobalFoodSystems.pdf

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