Food environments globally and in Australia are dominated by highly accessible and heavily promoted foods that are high in salt, saturated fat and added sugar. These unhealthy food environments have contributed to unhealthy population diets and high levels of obesity that are now the biggest contributors to poor health in Australia.

A wide range of policies shape food environments. These include government policies regarding food composition, labelling, marketing, availability and price, across a broad range of sectors such as health, agriculture, planning, education, trade and innovation. Private companies also affect food environments through their policies, actions and influence on policy makers and community perceptions.

Major policy changes are needed to create environments that encourage healthy food consumption. However, governments in Australia and globally have not adopted the suite of globally recommended actions in this area. In addition, policy processes in Australia have been criticised for lacking cohesion across multiple sectors, and for favouring private sector interests above public health.

The research in our ‘Policies for healthy food environments’ stream aims to improve the policy response to unhealthy diets, and understand how the development and implementation of policies to create healthier food environments can be enhanced.

We have a strong commitment to ensuring that our research findings are communicated widely and are used to inform policy and practice. We regularly contribute to World Health Organization (WHO) reports and consultations on obesity prevention. We also partner closely with the Obesity Policy Coalition and other public health organisations, and are involved in the creation of a national obesity prevention consensus.

Our research program focuses on:

  • monitoring the healthiness of food environments
  • understanding the policies and processes that shape food environments
  • building the evidence base (real-world, lab-based and modelled) on the likely effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of policies and interventions
  • analysing the influence of the food industry
  • mechanisms for increasing accountability

A selection of our current projects include:

  • Inside Our Food Companies 2018: assessed the largest Australian food companies on their polices and commitments related to obesity prevention and nutrition, across three major food industry sectors: supermarkets, food and beverage manufacturers, and quick service restaurants. The project used the BIA-Obesity tool developed by INFORMAS to assess company policies across 6 key action areas, including marketing to children, product formulation and nutrition labelling. The objective was to highlight where Australian food companies were demonstrating progress in relation to obesity prevention and nutrition, and identify priority recommendations at both the company and sector level.
  • INFORMAS: (International Network for Food and Obesity/non-communicable diseases Research, Monitoring and Action support): a global network of public-interest organisations and researchers that aims to monitor, benchmark and support public and private sector actions to create healthy food environments and reduce obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and related inequalities.
  • Food-EPI Australia 2016: benchmarks the obesity prevention policies of Australian state and federal governments. The project implements the Health Food Environment Policy Index (Food-EPI) tool that INFORMAS has developed to assess government policy across 14 action areas relating to food environments.
  • Centre of Research Excellence (CRE) in Policy Research on Obesity and Food Systems (2012–2017): this NHMRC-funded project includes the economic evaluation of 40 obesity prevention interventions across a range of sectors including food, trade, physical activity and urban design.
  • Identifying policy opportunities for schools to support healthy eating and physical activity amongst teachers: in this project, funded by the Teacher’s Health Foundation, we are identifying policy opportunities for schools to support healthy eating and physical activity for their staff. The project is working with a number of schools in the Greater Geelong area to understand the perspectives of teachers, and to analyse what policy and infrastructure is in place to support healthy eating and physical activity for teachers.
  • Healthy school canteens: In this collaboration between Monash and Deakin Universities, we are developing national audit tools to evaluate the healthiness of Australia’s school canteens.

Please contact Gary Sacks for more information about our policy research.