Adults alive today have lived through efforts to address four existential threats to our individual and collective health: smoking, AIDs, Covid, and food and diets that undermine health and promote chronic disease.
For the first three threats, our collective response has been sustained and successful and has improved America’s public health.
A combination of new science, prevention-focused public health interventions, the capacity of US industry to innovate quickly when essential to do so, and the commonsense can-do spirit of Americans has markedly reduced smoking and associated disease, turned AIDs from a death sentence to a mostly manageable disease, and saved millions of lives as the Covid pandemic unfolded.
But on the fourth grand challenge we have made no progress and unfortunately, key measures of how food is altering America’s public health are headed in the wrong direction.
Poor quality food and unhealthy dietary patterns are largely behind a sobering fact – at least two-thirds of deaths in the US, as well as many of the chronic diseases that undermine quality of life are caused largely or partially by unhealthy food and poor dietary choices.
There is both great tragedy and irony in the fact that US farmers and the food industry have the ability to produce the healthiest food supply in the world, but clearly are not, and most American consumers can afford healthy food, but don’t seek it out.
Growing and Manufacturing Healthy Food
Our food system could quickly and seamlessly enhance the healthfulness of the American diet. Every consumer, one day at a time, could choose healthier foods.
Yet about two-thirds of the American diet falls far short of promoting health. Far too many unhealthy food products are tasty, relatively inexpensive and are for sale everywhere. For the food industry, today’s highly processed foods are easy to manufacture, ship, and sell and they deliver the most consistent profits. Unhealthy food products are what many consumers prefer and hence what the market demands.
The only way to bring about change on the scale needed is for the government, farmers, and the food industry to unite in an all-hands-on-deck effort to turn healthy food into the most sought after — and the most profitable option. This effort needs to start now and must be sustained over at least a generation.
A critical first step is for the government to confront the 800-pound gorilla hiding in plain sight in the closet of the American food industry – What makes one food healthy and another one not so?
With the release in September 2022 of a Proposed Rule to define what makes “healthy” food healthy, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initiated one of the hopefully most-consequential rule makings ever in terms of helping Americans turn around deeply embedded adverse trends in health outcomes.
FDA requested public comments on its Proposed Rule and HHRA’s Public Policy Advisory Committee has weighed in with detailed comments. See this “In the News” item for an overview of our recommendations to the FDA, and this news coverage of the HHRA comments. And stay tuned as this critical rule making process unfolds.