One key aim of the collaboration, which was established in 2020 and forms part of a wider partnership in place since 2004, is to highlight how food and drinks are marketed in retail environments, where packaged and processed options that are high in sugar, fat and salt content are frequently promoted ahead of healthier choices.
The work being carried out in several countries in East Asia and the Pacific by GLOBE and international children’s welfare advocate UNICEF is one of a number of measures aimed at arresting an alarming escalation in childhood and adolescent obesity levels by promoting retail environments that encourage healthier shopping and eating habits.
UNICEF estimates that in the East Asia and Pacific Region, 90 million children and adolescents are overweight or obese, including 11 million children under the age of five. Compounding the issue, many Asian countries are increasingly moving from a diet based on fresh food obtained from markets to a more Westernised model of purchasing processed and packaged foods from supermarkets and convenience stores.
UNICEF conducts nutrition programs in 130 countries, underpinned by the belief that good nutrition is the bedrock of child survival and development, and that well-nourished children are better able to grow, learn, play and participate in their communities.
“Countries in the Asia Pacific are facing a rising tide of unhealthy foods full of cheap ingredients that are driving an epidemic of overweight and obesity,” said Dr Roland Kupka, UNICEF’s Regional Nutrition Adviser for the East Asia and Pacific Region.
“There is a risk that child obesity numbers will increase sharply if measures are not taken to make our food supply healthier, to put in place the right policies and programs to prevent children becoming overweight and obese.”
The GLOBE-UNICEF collaboration focuses on improving children’s nutrition through first understanding how marketing and promotions in retail food environments inform the choices of children and parents.
Associate Professor Adrian Cameron, who has worked with GLOBE since 2014, became involved because of the huge evidence gap around retail food environments in Asia. “GLOBE became involved to help develop an agenda for how research could influence children’s food environments in the region,” he said.
Around the world, food retailers routinely utilise promotions, discounts and product placement to influence customer choices. “Food environments in most of the world are awash with unhealthy food,” Assoc. Prof. Cameron said. “That’s what children are growing up with, and that becomes the norm to them. It’s very hard to change behaviour when that’s what you’re surrounded by.”
Georgina Belardo, UNICEF Philippines’ Corporate Alliances Officer, said a key to changing “alarming” rates of childhood obesity was to develop solutions involving the private sector, governments and consumers themselves.
“Our work with GLOBE has been very important and their innovative, multi-stakeholder approach to co-creating solutions is definitely the way to go, so that we are able to effectively influence the private sector towards protecting and advancing the rights of children to good nutrition,” she said.
“GLOBE has certainly given us access to the data, the technical expertise and the insightful strategies that we need to become effective advocates for healthier stores and healthier diets.”
Much of the research conducted by Assoc. Prof. Cameron and his team focused on analysing the retail food environment in four Asian countries – the Philippines, Indonesia, China and Thailand – with this work building on Australian research as part of the RE-FRESH Centre for Research Excellence in Retail Food Environments which is hosted by GLOBE.
Assoc. Prof. Cameron said his research was designed to impact policy decisions, but also to influence how retailers and manufacturers promote their products. “The kinds of things that we would like to see is changes to things like an increasing focus on marketing of healthier food, for example in price promotions and placement in prominent displays,” he said.
His research into the impacts of marketing and advertising in retail food environments is just one arm of the GLOBE-UNICEF collaboration. Fellow GLOBE researcher Professor Gary Sacks contributed research to help identify what role investors can play in making food retail healthier, while GLOBE’S Professor Kathryn Backholer supported UNICEF’s goals with a focus on assessing food environments in schools, and also identifying regulatory options to limit the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. This included working with the ASEAN secretariat to develop appropriate guidelines for the 10 countries comprising the ASEAN region.
“Thanks to the support offered by GLOBE to UNICEF and governments throughout the Asia Pacific region, numerous governments are now in a much better position to implement effective policies and programs,” Dr Kupka said.
“It is very clear that the GLOBE colleagues are among the world’s leaders in their fields and that they strive for scientific excellence. What is truly remarkable is that they are fully aware that the ultimate impact of the work is not just limited to the quality of scientific publications, but that through their work, GLOBE very much wants to make a difference.”
The GLOBE-UNICEF collaboration is one example of how Deakin University’s IHT is generating research that supports healthy outcomes. IHT continues to welcome new industry partnerships, and offers a number of ways to work together to best meet everyone’s needs.
Mr Kupka said the collaboration was delivering significant results in the four key Asian countries. “We have been able to identify the major players, the major retailers. We have the evidence base. We’ve also developed a range of tools on how to engage with these major food retailers. And ideally to create situations whereby retailers can meet their business goals,” he said.
Assoc. Prof. Cameron said he hopes the impact of the research by GLOBE would not be limited to the four Asian countries that are the subject of its collaboration with UNICEF. “The beauty of research is that if you’re able to prove the principle, and have research and evidence that demonstrates that this works, that can then be transferred across retail chains and between countries and contexts globally,” he said.
“Our research started at a local level here in Australia and has had an influence here, but we’re also keen to see that influence internationally as well.”