What is nutrition economics?


The relation between food and health has been documented sufficiently for a new discipline to emerge: nutrition economics. This rising research field focuses on the interdependency between dietary habits, health and public expenses. A paper recently published in the British Journal of Nutrition tells us more about how social & public spending, everywhere in the world, could be checked through the adoption of healthier diets.


The close link between health and food is a topic that has already been addressed several times here on down to Earth (for instance here, here and here). In fact, it is a topic that guides our whole reflection on nutrition, because it is key to improving people’s well-being everywhere in the world. This idea is at the heart of Danone’s mission: “to bring health through food to as many people as possible.”

Developed and developing countries are facing challenging health issues, and a growing number of them are diet-related – undernutrition, diabetes and obesity for example. The latter two fall into the category of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), recently highlighted by the World Economic Forum as “one of the three most significant risks to global well-being.” We can’t talk about risk without talking about cost: these threats to global health necessarily imply economic burdens for public health systems. This idea lies at the heart of a new research field called “nutrition economics”. It explores the close links between dietary habits, health and public expenditure.

The aim of the research is to offer concrete solutions to help prevent the spread of NCDs and food-related conditions, in order both to improve people’s well-being and to help health budgets shed a little weight.

In March 2013, five experts (including one from Danone Research) published a paper in the British Journal of Nutrition entitled: “Nutrition Economics – Food as an Ally of Public Health”. It is an interesting read which sheds some light on nutrition economics, its findings and its recommendations.


The rising challenge of preventing diseases


What actually is nutrition economics? A “merging of health economics and nutritional sciences”, write I. Lenoir-Wijnkoop, P. J. Jones, R. Uauy, L. Segal and J. Milner, who co-authored the piece. The term was coined in 2010 by a group of multidisciplinary experts who defined it as

a discipline dedicated to researching and characterising health and economic outcomes in nutrition for the benefit of society.

The central idea here is to improve health maintenance and delay the onset of  disease: if the links between diets and health are uncovered, then appropriate policies can be defined to prevent diseases from erupting, thereby efficiently fighting diet-related health concerns. The stakes are huge: in most developed countries, “health care expenditure continues to rise faster than economic growth”, write the authors. In the past 10 years, it has increased by 50% in the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation, while “the economic cost of diet-related NCD in China was estimated at 2.4% of gross domestic product in 1995.” The paper reminds another striking information: cancer, diabetes, heart disease and lung disease kill 36 million people worldwide every year, making up 63% of global deaths – and a majority of cancers occurs in high-income countries. It thus becomes obvious that “the commitment by governments to eradicate hunger and undernutrition is not only an ethical imperative, but also a sound investment that will yield significant economic gains and major social benefits.” A win-win opportunity, you might say. Public health efficiency is in fact a key to a sustainable health care organisation, and nutrition economics supports the development of sound, persuasive public policies to promote health through food. Now the main question is: how? Science has some answers in store.


“Let thy food be thy medicine”


The methodology used by nutrition economics researchers can be broken down into three steps: first, they measure and establish the actual cost of diseases; second, they evaluate the economic impacts of food habits in “real”, everyday life; and third, they define precise strategies to help actually change dietary and nutritional behaviours. As they write in the conclusion of the paper, this work must help raise awareness as well as recommending turnkey actions: “There is a need to improve awareness among health authorities and decision makers of the very considerable benefits of better-quality diets and of the effective and cost-effective policies that can achieve that goal. Nutrition economics has a major role in informing this desirable policy direction.” Here is a strong example of how science can and must guide public action, by providing clear information on the costs and benefits of a particular policy. Science has a responsibility to demonstrate the approaches that will be most beneficial to all. As highlighted by the paper, governments and public authorities can strive to “alleviate undernutrition”, deficiencies and NCDs by promoting healthy dietary habits as part of everyday life (communication to the public has a major role to play here), and by supporting the use of “functional foods” (foods where an additional ingredient has been included to provide a supplementary function). These are effective ways to prevent diseases,on the long term,  and every effort must be made to help the public understand that it truly matters.

As Hippocrates once said: “Let thy food be thy medicine.” In these times of crisis, nutrition economics highlight how this principle must guide modern societies towards both offering better health to everyone and reducing public expenditure.

Photo © Shutterstock / Teresa Kasprzycka