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Healthy Food Policy Research Round Up: A Q&A with Barry Popkin from UNC

Across the globe there has been growing momentum to adopt healthy food policies. As such, there has been new and compelling research related to the need for these policies as well as scientific evidence that they are working. Through the Global Health Advocacy’s (GHAI) Food Policy Program, we partner with the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Global Food Research Program (GFRP), which conducts the primary research and evaluations in our focus countries, creating the evidence base on healthy food policies. Advocates looking for the latest data related to healthy food policies can visit their recently launched website to find maps, fact sheets and short summaries about their latest research.

As we wrap up 2021, Elizabeth Orlan (EO), Associate Director, Research at GHAI’s Food Policy Program took a moment to talk with Dr. Barry Popkin (BP), a professor and co-director of the UNC Global Food Research Program to discuss the most compelling research from 2021, and what research advocates should pay attention to in the new year:

EO: What is the most compelling article you read or wrote this year that supports the need for food policies?

BP: It’s challenging to pick only one, so we want to share our top 3:

Our team, in collaboration with research partners in our focus countries, have published several papers this year which show the latest evidence on how food policies have been successful in South Africa, Chile and Brazil.

South Africa’s Health Promotion Levy — a sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) tax implemented in 2018 and based on sugar content (as opposed to drink volume) — has shown promising results that the SSB tax has led to decreases in consumption and sugar intake from SSBs. The studies also show that there were greater reductions in SSB purchases among lower socioeconomic groups and other groups with higher SSB consumption.

EO: Yes, these were fascinating results and really promising for SSB taxes based on sugar content versus drink volume or price. You can read research alerts that we developed in collaboration with the research authors and more papers on the Health Promotion Levy in the research database.

BP: Another important article showed that during the first phase of implementation, Chile’s food policies have already led to declines in calories purchased from ultra-processed foods, compared to expected trends. Chile has been the world leader in healthy food policies, and these results should be encouraging for other countries who have passed or are developing similar strong laws, like Argentina’s recent victory.

BP: The last article I’ll share is one we wrote with many of our local research partners from around the world that showcases evaluation results to date. This includes Mexico’s SSB tax and front-of-package warning label policy, Chile’s multi-policy package, Brazil’s school food policy and South Africa’s Health Promotion Levy. It’s a great testament to all the amazing work that the advocacy and research partners have done throughout the program’s lifespan.

EO: Will you talk about your new website and what advocates can expect to find on it?

BP: We redesigned and launched our new Global Food Research Program website this summer. Visitors to the site can explore our research by policy area and/or by country. They can also access and utilize our growing resource library, which includes regularly updated policy-specific fact sheets, world and regional maps showing where different healthy food policies have been implemented, and more. Users can search our publications by policy type, country, and GFRP faculty author, and we now regularly publish posts summarizing key findings from new publications as well as other team news. We hope the information on our website will be useful to anyone who is learning about, advocating for, or implementing healthy food policies. We also hope it will help people get to know our team at UNC-Chapel Hill and our many collaborators around the world!

EO: You have been working on food policy issues for many years. How have the policies evolved and how has research shaped this shift?

BP: We have learned that three sets of policies can be impactful: taxation of sugary drinks and unhealthy food, front-of-package warning labels and marketing controls. From evaluations of the tax policies in South Africa, Mexico and elsewhere, we have learned that sugar-based taxation can impact health more by promoting reformulation, whereas volume-based taxes provide more revenue. Chile has taught us how impactful warning labels are for significantly reducing sugar and sodium consumption by cutting purchases of food high in these products.

We do not yet have strong evidence on school food policies in low- and middle-income countries, but hopefully the evaluation of Brazil’s set of policies related to school feeding will help. Countries respond to data showing significant impacts on purchases of unhealthy ultra-processed food, and we are now at the phase where we need to keep refining policies based on current data. Going forward, we will explore ways to not only strengthen these policies but to also use the revenues they generate to further enhance healthy eating.

EO: What research should advocates look out for in 2022? Any exciting projects you can tell us about?

BP: Evaluations from Phase 2 of Chile’s Law of Food Labeling and Advertising will start to come out, as well as evaluations showing the impacts of Peru’s taxation and front-of-package warning labels on sugary drink consumption. For Mexico, an evaluation of laws during COVID-19 will be much more complex and take several years to complete. COVID-19 will also impact some of our work in Chile and Peru and minimize for how many years we can examine impact on purchases and diets.

Thank you Dr. Popkin for taking the time to discuss exciting and important research from this year and what advocates can expect for 2022. Look out for future research materials for food policy advocates both on the GHAI website and GFRP’s website, including our evidence sheets on SSB tax policies (in collaboration with UNC) and front of package warning labels as well as our research database, which provides summaries and key messages for many of the latest, seminal papers on healthy food policies.