The nutrition paradox: What does it mean for business?

Obesity and malnutrition are now bigger global public health concerns than hunger. How are companies responding to a growing need for nutritious food that doesn’t cost the Earth?

Children in the Philippines
In the Philippines, 95 children die every day from malnutrition, according to the United Nations Children's Fund. Image: Feed My Starving Children

The need for affordable, nutritious food has become of one of the most urgent issues of our time, as obesity and malnutrition overtake hunger as major health concerns.

Dubbed the ‘nutrition paradox’, the intertwining trends of obesity, undernutrition, hunger and environmental degradation point to a global food production system that has reached breaking point.

Global hunger continues to be a problem, with over 800 million people taking in insufficient calories, while the number of overweight or obese people now eclipses 2 billion. This serious dire implications for health and healthcare spending, with a rise in chronic diseases such as diabetes. At the same time, people who are neither hungry or overweight are still lacking in basic nutrients.

Added to this is the environmental damage caused by changing dietary preferences for meat, particularly among Asia’s rising middle classes, and intensive large-scale production of food.

Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Professor Emeritus at the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, said that the efforts to tackle these issues have to include the private sector.

“It should have been done a long time ago but it did not happen because the distribution of the gains were unequal,” said Pinstrup-Andersen who was in Kuala Lumpur for Changing the World One Meal at a Time, a workshop that examined the nutrition paradox.

He noted that most of the benefit from addressing the problem would be captured in the well-being of society, and not passed on to those making healthier products. A win-win strategy for all sides was therefore necessary.

“Companies are in the business of making money, and if they make money doing the right thing, they will prefer to do that,” he said.

It’s a big misconception that businesses do not want to make money from healthy foods.

Madhavika Bajoria, manager, Sight and Life

Professor Pinstrup-Andersen noted that while there is rising consumer demand for affordable nutritious food, this does not always translate into actual consumer behaviour or purchases. Governments have sought to influence consumer behaviour, often through taxation, but in general this has been ineffective.

“It is hard to change the consumer mindset,” he said. “But it can be done.” He pointed at the various food, diet and health trends that have soared in global popularity in recent years, such as the demand for super foods like quinoa.

As such, there is a need to address both the demand and supply for healthier and environmentally sustainable food, and the change needs to take place at the same time. But given the business risks, the food industry isn’t often willing to step in, and it is left to start-ups to fill that space.

NamZ, a nutrition start-up based in Singapore, is one of them. It is currently experimenting with several products which aim to fulfil the criteria of being healthier, affordable and environmentally sustainable.

Christoph Langwallner, co-founder of NamZ, said they currently have two food products in the pipeline. One is healthier instant noodles dehydrated through steaming and high-velocity air rather than deep-frying to keep it shelf stable. A production line with the capacity of 350 million portions of instant noodles a year is currently under construction in the Philippines, and aims to send its first products to the market by the third quarter of this year.

The other product is a sweet sauce, used in Asian cooking, that aims to be more environmentally sustainable and healthier as it uses a cane product rather than coconut flower sap, which requires intensive labour and expansive coconut plantations.

He believes that these products – which he says do not sacrifice taste for nutrition, and are affordable – will appeal to consumers.

While acknowledging that it is a massive undertaking to change consumer behaviour, he noted that consumers are already articulating a demand for healthier food, through their rejection of chemical additives in food, for example.

“The big brands will adapt if we are successful, disruptions have to happen from the outside,” Langwallner said.

Madhavika Bajoria, from the global organisation tackling malnutrition Sight and Life, spoke about how her organisation had successfully got businesses to become involved through interventions that made commercial sense as well as brought social benefit.

“It’s a big misconception that businesses do not want to make money from healthy foods. We have found them to be very open and sensitised to the problem,” she said.

“It is a multi-stakeholder problem, we need to work with the private sector and government. We work as the convener to bring them together.”

Bajoria, who is Sight and Life’s manager for nutrition integration, said they had found success in the use of quality seals or logos to communicate affordable nutritious choices. It had introduced this in Ghana and India, and found interest among businesses wanting to use the logo to denote product upgrades to meet technical standards.

In India, it was the nation’s largest producers of edible oils and rice that had sought technical support to fortify their food staples, to qualify to use the logo.

“We need to find win-win strategies, to bring about both social and commercial benefits,” she said. “It has to be collaborative.”

Bajoria also said careful and in-depth market research was necessary at the same time to understand consumer behaviour in a particular community, and to create consumer demand and acceptance of the product. This had to be done simultaneously as it would not make sense to create demand without supply, nor insist on supply without demand.

In one study in South Africa, for example, it found that many lower-income families ate packaged porridge as this was quick to prepare and regarded as healthier. They set up a social business to offer fortified and more nutritious porridge packets, with international branding to appeal to South African consumers.

In another case in Indonesia, they found that many lower-income families did not have access to fresh eggs due to logistical constraints. They provided technical assistance to aggregate eggs from small farms in one location, making it more efficient to distribute the eggs.

It is hoped that these efforts will spur larger corporations to be part of the movement. To work, it has to be a collaborative effort because it is the large corporations that have large budgets for research and development, and marketing, Bajoria said.

Professor Pinstrup-Andersen noted that some large food companies have already signalled their intention to offer healthier products. Hershey and General Mills have announced plans to expand their product offerings this year to appeal to younger consumers who want healthier snacks, while PepsiCo acquired beverage maker KeVita and launched its Tropicana Essentials Probiotics line to bring probiotics, healty bacteria and yeasts typically found in yoghurt, into the mainstream.

While some of the measures companies have taken smack of hype over substance, there were others that were serious and pointed to a strong emerging market for better, more nutritious and affordable food, Pinstrup-Andersen said.

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