Can a lawsuit stimulate discussion & action to improve healthy eating?

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Unhealthy eating is the leading risk for death and disability in the United States and Canada. It is imperative that people starting eating healthier.

But with conflicted information everywhere they turn, how are consumers supposed to know what is healthy food? I believe it’s time this question gets the attention it deserves.

A recent lawsuit seeking class-action status says the American Heart Association lets Campbell Soup use “Heart-Check” certification in exchange for a fee, even though the company’s products don’t meet the AHA’s nutritional recommendations.

The lawsuit implies consumers are being misled by both charities and the food industry. Consumers put their trust in both at the grocery store and when they serve food to their families.

It’s high time to openly discuss where the food industry, charities and government come together or conflict on food policy and health. This lawsuit highlights the critical barriers people are facing when attempting to purchase and eat healthy foods revealing the incredible difficulty faced by charities trying to help people eat healthy foods as well as companies trying to develop healthier foods. This lawsuit exemplifies a virtual complete lack of (mostly government) oversight in the United States (and for that matter Canada too) to guide people, charities, and companies on what is or is not healthy.

In North America there is no definitive label indicating what is healthy and what is unhealthy. There is no agreed upon definition of what constitutes a healthy food. Canada, for example, has over 20 different front-of-package labelling schemes many of which indicate that its food is healthier than a different product even if both may be unhealthy. The consumer can’t know if the food label actually compares to others, or whether the label states the product is healthy based on a brand-defined nutrient criteria.

This is a critically important area for discussion, research, and action. We need to come to a consensus to provide guidance to consumers, government, charities and companies.

A possible conflict

This lawsuit also highlights the uncertainty between financial interests and public interests and the interaction of charities and commercial entities. Many charities and health care professional organizations have funding from commercial entities that allow them to perform their functions. There is little to nothing governing the exchange of money to a charity for example from a company for a ‘healthy’ food label. There is little guidance to charities on what is an acceptable or not acceptable practice in this area. How much funding from commercial entities is reasonable and how much may result in the Charity being conflicted and influenced to possibly misrepresent the best interests of the public? The interaction between charities and commercial entities, specifically as it pertains to public health matters, needs to be discussed publicly. Guidance and guidelines need to be developed and practices publicly disclosed so consumers can feel confident that Charities are representing their interests. Open for discussion is the extensive and usually undisclosed funding from food companies to health care professional organizations and charities.

In my opinion, food industry funding has facilitated unhealthy eating, and unhealthy foods have become a major cause of death and disability with little tangible response from health care organizations and charities that are supposed to represent public interests but have failed to do so.

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