Thousands of nutritionists gathered in Granada, Spain, last week for the 20th International Congress of Nutrition. It was a huge event with eight simultaneous streams of seminars over a full week.
It has come to be known as the Nutrition Olympics (#ICN20) as it is only held every four years and like the Olympics itself, it has been criticised for permitting corporate food players into the event.
Coca-Cola had marquees around Granada’s main plazas inviting the public to learn of its efforts to ‘hydrate the world’ for more than a century. Unilever, Mondelez, General Mills, Hero, Nestlé were all in attendance, helping to fund the event with precious sponsorship euros and demonstrating their increasing commitment to better nutrition.
For serious food and health researchers and nutritionists come together to present and discuss data and debate ways to reduce ‘globesity’, diabetes, malnutrition, childhood stunting and other health problems, the presence of 'big food' with gleaming stands and nutritional boasting was a little hard to stomach.
One Chilean nutritionist, outraged at Coca Cola’s prominence at the event, made her feelings known right away via Twitter.
“nutrition in the end is about food”
The big food firms all pushed a similar line: Their portfolios carry healthier and less-healthy products so it is down to consumers to make the selections. They simply give the consumer what she wants, which, by the way, includes a growing array of healthy and healthier foodstuffs.
The global food industry has an important role to play in improved nutrition, they said, so don’t go excluding us from these big nutrition get togethers.
As Unilever’s cross-category nutrition and health director, Hans Zevenbergen, told us: “For sure big food companies have a role to play in these conferences. In the end the food companies give the food to the people so they are involved in this whole chain and therefore it’s to everyone’s benefit if they are involved – they learn, they can be influenced and see how others are acting – so they should be involved.”
“Also nutrition in the end is about food and that is nice food, enjoyable food – food that people really want to eat and that is the role of the big food companies – to make the preferred choice the healthier choice. That’s one of the other reasons we are here – to show how you can merge good food with healthy food. So we are very pleased to be here.”
Which is fair enough, but the broader choice-influencing landscape where marketing spend on the unhealthier items typically dwarfs the healthier stuff, even when government healthy eating campaigns are thrown into the mix, must be considered.
For the nutritional purists the big food presence represents an unequivocal ideological rupture. These are the very same big food giants that are the makers and marketers of the very same food products causing the very same health problems in the first place. A bulk of their profits come from those foods so their presence at #ICN20 is just more hypocritical 'nutrawashing'.
“Image-massaging bollocks,” as one quipped to me.
It’s easy enough to see that point of view when the world’s supermarkets remain stacked with processed, health problem-causing rather than solving fodder, but is that grounds enough to exclude them? Fact is, if improved nutrition is to occur on a mass scale, most of it will come via the products on offer from the mainstream food industry.
If the manner of their involvement can be refined so that public marketing opportunities are limited and sponsored seminars challenged to move firmly beyond company-speak, then ongoing food industry participation at the globe’s biggest nutrition convention is a no-brainer.
Perhaps at the next Nutrition Olympiad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2017, the assembled nutritionists would do better to refine their lobbying and maximise an excellent opportunity for serious dialogue with the food industry to effect real change, rather than booing from the bleachers.