Leading brands are promoted often using the same entertainers, models, music and slogans everywhere, including on television, the Internet and social media. […] They are disseminated by means of intensive and aggressive advertising campaigns, including the launching of a vast number of new products every year, creating a false sense of diversity. […] Such campaigns, which may be linked with billion-dollar multi-media entertainment packages beamed at children and young people, […] displace authentic and infinitely rich and varied cultures and replace these by a monolithic uniform consumer culture whose driving force is more and more consumption and profit.”

A description of the alcohol and tobacco industry? No, it is the food industry. Who is the messenger of this critique? Researchers working with the new Brazilian dietary guidelines.

I have taken the opportunity to review the new Brazilian dietary guidelines, which to me is something beyond the ordinary. Why is that? The stated aim of the researchers is to “nourish and sustain the bodies of the people of Brazil, but also their minds and souls”. That’s quite an unusual statement for a peer-reviewed article. They also have a holistic approach towards the concept of sustainability – also something quite unusual in todays dietary recommendations.

So, what are the basic principles? Although they are comprised of a lot of different components, the basic principles are easy to communicate. All edibles are divided into four categories:

  • Group 1: Natural or minimally processed food
  • Group 2: Culinary preparations (salt, sugar, fats and oils)
  • Group 3: Processed foods
  • Group 4: Ultra-processed foods

The golden rule is to choose natural foods over refined and processed foods and to use fat, salt and sugar sparingly. The aim is to empower consumers instead of confusing them, thus making it easier to make healthy food choices.

Are there any drawbacks to this kind of approach? Of course there are.

The definition of what is processed or not is intuitive but vague and the correlation between health and processed foods can vary, sometimes greatly. Even though the Brazilian guidelines put an emphasis on unprocessed plant food this message is not crystal clear and could lead to great discrepancies in both health and sustainability.

Consumer empowerment

Even though the Brazilian dietary guidelines may not be perfect, they have a holistic approach to a healthy diet that I haven’t seen in any other dietary recommendations anywhere in the world. It is best explained as consumer power. When guiding consumers towards more unprocessed foods, you are also guiding them away from corporate power, since many of our biggest transnational food corporations also are the producers of ultra-processed food, which is a great obstacle to achieving proper health and well-being. But it doesn’t stop there. Among the top ten steps to a healthy diet we find:

  1. Mindful eating
    Make eating a regular routine. Eat slowly without engaging in other activities. Eat in the company of family, friends and colleagues.
  2. Hone your skills
    If you have cooking skills – develop them and share them with friends and family. If you don’t – acquire them.
  3. Making food important
    Assess how you live so you can give proper time to for food and eating. Plan your food shopping.
  4. Corporate literacy
    The purpose of advertising is to increase product sales, and not to inform or educate people. Be critical and teach children to be critical of all forms of food advertising and marketing.

The fact of guiding consumers to be wary of food marketing is to me a strong indication of an aim that lies far beyond just making people eat their veggies. All together, the guidelines are trying to make healthy eating accessible for everyone, thus empowering people to be masters of their own lives and not in the hands of unethical practices of profit-hungry corporations. A vision which is also shared by IOGT International.

But diet isn’t everything. Although unhealthy eating is a big contribution to the global disease burden, there are more challenges ahead. But just take a moment and imagine if every scientist and institution was explicitly driven by idea to empower consumers, disarm unethical corporations and strive to achieve an, in every way, sustainable world. Then we would really be on our way.

All of us human beings are now living in a unique time in history. This century is a turning time for life on Earth. There is no escaping this fact. To contribute to the continued welfare and existence of human society and civilizations, all relevant sciences and other activities in principle and in action must now be sustainable, and prove that they are sustainable. However hard, dangerous and steep the road ahead, we see no other rational way. What is needed, with food and nutrition, just as with climate disruption, is radical. Tinkering will not work and can only make bad worse. All of us who have some responsibility […] must be part of this great endeavour.”

Again, not anything you read in your average peer-reviewed journal right?

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