One of the greatest health challenges facing the world today is how to reduce the incidence of diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that worldwide, these diseases (known as noncommunicable diseases (NCD)) currently represent 43% of the burden of disease and are expected to be responsible for 73% of all deaths by 2020.
Most of this increase will be accounted for by emerging NCD epidemics in developing countries.
The prevalence of these diseases is closely linked to four risk factors; unhealthy diets, a lack of exercise, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
This means the challenge of reducing these diseases is very much a consumer issue - how to help consumers to live healthier lives.
Last week I joined a group of academics and civil society groups from around the world for the inaugural meeting of the International Network for Food and Obesity/Non-communicable Diseases Research, Monitoring and Action Support (INFORMAS).
INFORMAS seeks to address what some believe to be the most pressing of these challenges – unhealthy diets – by monitoring the ‘food environments’ that influence our dietary choices.
Food environments are made up of all the different factors that influence the availability, affordability and acceptability of food, and together, this group aims to develop rigorous international tools to monitor these developments.
Issues under discussion include the sort of food that is available to consumers, the cost of that food, the information that is available about that food and the marketing of food to children. Crucially, INFORMAS will also look at the public and private policies that affect these different factors.
It’s an ambitious programme but, from CI’s perspective, these tools will not only be important for the development of our members’ own tests and surveys but the results will provide invaluable evidence for our advocacy on food and nutrition.
This work will also take on added significance in the light of recent UN commitments to monitor countries’ progress in tackling NCDs.
Most of the benchmarks for monitoring which are being developed by the WHO are likely to track the incidence of the diseases and the risk factors, but, of course it will be international, regional and national policies that will drive progress.
Improving diets is no small challenge. Many countries have already followed a path that leads to more processed food and higher levels of fat, sugar and salt in the diet, but with the evidence generated by the INFORMAS tools, and our members’ on the ground experience, CI will be well placed to argue for policies that will reverse the growing number of people suffering from these diseases.