Food policy: "Much potential remains untapped"

19 Oct 2021

A study of the political framework for promoting healthy eating in Germany reveals a pressing need for reform.

Nutri-Score, a nutritional rating system. © IMAGO / C. Hardt / Future Image

Every year, 15 percent of all deaths and 17 billion euros in healthcare costs in Germany can be put down to the effects of an imbalanced diet. Moreover, the global food system is responsible for one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and it is considered to be the main driver of biodiversity loss worldwide. Policymakers have an instrumental role to play in making it easy for people to make healthy and sustainable food choices. Where exactly Germany stands in this regard has been examined by researchers from the LMU’s Chair of Public Health and Health Services Research and the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology in conjunction with numerous experts from academia, public policy and civil society. The results reveal that Germany is not living up to its potential and highlight the need for reform.

Sweets or salad, water or soft drinks – whether and how we actually do healthy eating on a day-to-day basis is very much influenced by a number of environmental factors, known as our food environment. Policymakers can promote healthy eating through a variety of measures, including issuing quality standards for school lunches, setting rules for nutrition labeling or bringing in food taxes. The scientists investigated how far Germany is along this path by applying an internationally recognized method – the Food Environment Policy Index (Food-EPI) – to capture in a large number of indicators the political measures and rules that have been put in place. “Comparing Germany’s results against international best practices was a sobering moment. It is clear that much potential remains untapped. Germany is currently way off international best practice when it comes to creating healthy and sustainable food environments and there is a pressing need for reform,” says Dr. med. Peter von Philipsborn, a research associate at the LMU’s Chair of Public Health and Health Services Research and the head of the research project.

Binding quality standards

Germany’s implementation of a healthy eating policy is rated as low to very low in most of the indicators examined. The authors identified a need for action in numerous areas, including in the provision of high-quality, free school and daycare meals. “A healthy and balanced meal should be available to all children in daycare settings and schools in Germany. For this to become a reality, we need binding quality standards to be introduced across the entire country and it needs to be financed by tax income,” says Dr. Antje Hebestreit from the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology. To finance higher-quality meals in daycare and school settings, the experts propose the introduction of a manufacturer’s levy on soft drinks, with tax rates staggered according to sugar content. The introduction of such a levy in the UK led to a significant drop in sugar content and sugar consumption there.

The authors of the result report also call for legal regulations on food marketing to children and point out the need for action around the catering offering in other public sector institutions. “It’s not only kindergartens and schools that have canteens and catering facilities – other public bodies also have them, including government offices, universities, hospitals and retirement homes. They too should be subject to binding quality standards such as those defined by the German Nutrition Society (DGE),” says Philipsborn.

The scientists have summarized the key findings of the Food Environment Policy Index 2021 for Germany in a policy brief. The results are elaborated in the result report and the English publication manuscript.

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