Leaders from across the food system convened to tackle a tough question this week at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy’s fourth annual Nutrition Innovation Summit.
The question posed during the Oct. 6 online event: How do we create the change we need in our food system, in an increasingly fast-moving economy, with pandemics and climate change looming large?
“This is, I think, the greatest overall single issue facing humanity today—how we’re going to fix the food system, whether in terms of nutrition, access, sustainability, or equity,” said Friedman School Dean Dariush Mozaffarian, who delivered opening and closing remarks.
The event included panels on: misinformation and nutrition science; building a platform for innovation; innovating with a focus on the consumer; and food systems innovation.
Friedman School panelists included Corby Kummer, Sean Cash, Parke Wilde, and Erin Coughlan de Perez. Other participants represented a wide range of organizations, including the Angiogenesis Foundation, nutrition communication consultant Eat Well Global, and About Fresh, a company whose fleet of retrofitted school buses and healthcare platform connect people in need with fresh food.
No matter what our role in the food system, we can all contribute to making it better, according to many of the panelists—and that work doesn’t have to be big or dramatic.
“Even small incremental steps toward getting it right can have huge effects for health and the health of the planet,” Mozaffarian said.
Below are key takeaways from two of the summit’s panels. A recording of the entire summit is available on the Food & Nutrition Innovation Summit 2021 website.
Panel: Nutrition Science and Misinformation, Challenges, and Opportunities
Misinformation. Disinformation. Too much info. Too little. A panel moderated by Corby Kummer, senior lecturer at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, food journalist, and commentator for The Atlantic, National Public Radio, and the Aspen Institute, cast a sharp eye on the fast-changing landscape of nutrition science and the challenges and opportunities to clear up confusion. Joining Kummer were: Tambra Raye Stevenson, MG04, and founder and CEO of WANDA (Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture), which focuses on reaching, teaching, and advocating for women and girls of African descent in the nutrition dietetics and agricultural spaces; Jennifer Pomeranz, interim chair, Department of Public Health Policy, New York University; and Sean Cash, Bergstrom Foundation Professor in Global Nutrition at the Friedman School.
Here are three takeaways that emerged from the conversation during the Nutrition and Misinformation panel (video):
The “Internet in everything” creates obvious and subtle impacts. “Our platformed society has Internet in everything,” said Stevenson. Not only is there a multiplicity of digital communications channels and social media but these privatized systems lack transparency, rely on hidden algorithmic systems that may have embedded biases, and are largely unaccountable under current public policy. Media fragmentation and decentralization impact discourse and potentially amplify and distort information. We must recognize and address this problem on multiple fronts.
We need to bring analog regulations into the digital age. Regulation has failed to keep up with changing technology and consumer behavior, ignoring huge swathes of communications media, said the panelists. One example, from Sean Cash: After years of discussion, in 2018, calorie-labeling regulations became mandatory for menu boards in chain restaurants. But the growth of online food ordering platforms, which aren’t covered, meant that those regulations quickly became irrelevant for a large segment of the population. “We’re regulating for the 20th century in a digital world,” Cash said. Although regulation is not a “silver bullet” and enforcement can be challenging, Cash said the U.S. can look to other countries such as Chile and Germany that have set high standards for marketing to children in through digital and social media.
Purchasing food online is “the Wild West,” said Pomeranz. “We need to reel in deceptive and misleading claims on websites and online marketing.” Even traditional nutrition information vehicles, such as labels on food packaging, need to be more robust. “We still need to address labeling gaps, particularly with fruit drinks and toddler drinks,” said Pomeranz. “For example, there’s no easy way to identify non-nutritive sweeteners unless you know the chemical name and read the ingredient list.”
We need a whole-society approach. We all have a role to play in addressing misinformation, whether individual, researcher, funder, health care provider, technology platform, or media channel, according to Stevenson. This means technology companies working with government working with researchers. Restoring trust, particularly among marginalized communities that have not been part of the main narrative, is paramount. Social media’s unique ability to support individualized messages can be divisive—but it can also enable those who distrust traditional information channels to partner in creating fact-based narratives that will inspire trust.
Cash sees a role for positive interaction between the public and private sectors. Industry can move faster than regulators to identify future problems. “They can look for the win-win-win of doing right by their bottom line, consumers, and the planet.” Changes in consumer demand and behavior can be levers for corporate change, added Kummer, a self-described optimist, noting that companies have, for instance, recognized consumers’ desire for information about foods’ sugar content.