Boost for healthy food retail research

The Institute for Health Transformation’s director, Professor Anna Peeters, has been awarded a National Health and Medical Council Research (NHMCR) Investigator grant of more than $1.7M to continue her unique research program into healthy food retail.

Written by Judy Baulch

The opportunities in healthy food retail to scale-up evidence-based policies and practices to support better diets in our communities are one step closer to reality with the announcement of the latest round of NHRMC funding.

The five-year, $1,783,164 Investigator Grant awarded to Professor Anna Peeters, Director of Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation, will allow Professor Peeters and her team to extend their research program and communicate the resulting evidence to Australian and international researchers, practitioners and policy makers.

“Food retail environments, where consumers source over 90 per cent of their food, currently use price promotions and combination deals and prominent placement and signage to incentivise and promote unhealthy food choices, leading directly to poor health outcomes,” Professor Peeters says.

“However, existing research has focussed largely on approaches to encouraging individuals to improve their food choices, which – while important – has been insufficient to improve population diets. Global recommendations have typically paid little attention to the role of the retailer in creating environments that encourage healthy food purchases.”

Over the past five years, Professor Peeters’ internationally unique research program has demonstrated that it’s possible for food retailers to promote diets that meet national dietary guidelines, lead to healthier communities and still maintain a healthy bottom line.

As part of this work, Professor Peters established the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Food Retail Environments for Health (RE-FRESH), the world’s first international centre for healthy food retail research and practice, in 2018. The Investigator Grant comes at a critical time to most effectively leverage RE-FRESH and fill the remaining evidence gaps “to ensure healthy food retail interventions are implemented, sustained and effective at improving population diets,” she says.

“Unhealthy diet is the major modifiable risk factor for burden of disease in Australia, resulting in nearly 400,000 years of life lost to death and disability each year. With over one third of energy intake coming from unhealthy food and drink, poor diet represents a large and avoidable burden, and offers substantial opportunity for effective interventions to improve population health and wellbeing.

“With the food retail sector a major driver of what we purchase and consume, it’s imperative to drive evidence-based change. My research has identified unique opportunities in healthy food retail to scale up evidence based policies and practices to support our communities to consume healthier diets.”

For example, Professor Peeters’ evaluation of interventions to reduce purchase and consumption of unhealthy drinks in hospitals and recreation centres estimated such interventions resulted in a direct reduction in purchasing of approximately 60,000 sugary drinks/year across the sixteen outlets evaluated.

“Evidence demonstrates a causal association between sugary drink consumption and obesity and diabetes and implementation of these interventions alone across all hospitals and recreation centres in Australia has the potential to significantly improve population diet and health,” she says.

“Food retailers are the gatekeepers of the environment in which we find and buy our food, but if we want them to implement interventions that result in consumers purchasing and consuming more healthy and less unhealthy food, retailers need evidence on the business and customer impacts of these interventions.

“That’s what’s lacking at the moment and what I hope to provide through this research: evidence on the business outcomes relevant to retailers, on how to ensure interventions are sustained, and on the extent to which changes in purchasing lead to changes in overall diet and health outcomes.”

The Investigator Grant will, for the first time:

  • Identify a series of healthy food service retail interventions that have been demonstrated to increase customer readiness to consume, and retailer readiness to provide, healthier food options, and have been demonstrated to be feasible and sustainable in the Australian context
  • Provide evidence on the key factors likely to affect the effectiveness and feasibility of healthy food service retail interventions
  • Quantify the magnitude of effect of successful healthy food service retail interventions on the healthiness of consumer food and drink purchases, and on predicted diet and health outcomes
  • Produce an implementation framework specific to the food service retail sector to increase feasibility and sustainability of healthy food service retail interventions
  • Establish the first International Healthy Food Retail Hub to facilitate scale up of information exchange and impact, and to support expansion to new food retail settings

“Unless we’re able to transform our food retail environments to incentivise and support purchase and consumption of healthy over unhealthy food, we’ll struggle to turn around the current epidemics of obesity and unhealthy diet,” Professor Peeters says.

She hopes her proposed five year program will provide the catalyst required to move translation of her research findings to scale in food retail environments.

“Building the evidence to inform and support effective and sustained change in this sector will drive dietary improvement for those in direct contact with the food service retail outlets. In five years, my vision is to have a robust evidence base across a variety of food service retail settings of healthy food retail interventions that are effective at improving people’s diets, have been demonstrated to increase customer readiness to consume – and retailer readiness to provide – healthier food and drink options, and have a feasible and sustainable implementation pathway,” she says.

“The ultimate goal is sustained changes in food retail practice nationally and internationally with associated improvements in population purchasing, consumption and overall diet.”

Professor Peeters’ Investigator grant is one of seven awarded to Deakin projects in the latest round of Federal government funding – six under the NHMRC Investigator Grants program, and one under the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) Investigator Grant program. The grants will each fund five years of research into projects investigating mental health and well-being and the impact of nutrition and eating behaviours, especially in early life, looking to identify new causes of ill health and develop new solutions.

Listen: Healing Health podcast – How changing our food systems can change population health with Professor Anna Peeters