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Malnutrition and the nutraceutical industry–podcast

Audio-Malnutrition and the nutraceutical industry–podcast

Investigating how the nutraceutical industry can – and must – tackle the global issue of malnutrition.

The nutraceutical industry aims to provide more nutrition to more people, but worldwide 1 in 3 people in the world suffer from malnutrition. Ahead of her contribution to the sustainability panel discussion at Vitafoods Europe 2021, Christina Nyhus Dhillon, Senior Technical Specialist at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), explains why the nutraceutical industry must take responsibility for the nutrition of its supply chain in order to meet consumer demand, see a return on investment and tackle the problem of global hunger. 

Tune in to learn about:

  • The relationship between malnutrition and the nutraceutical industry
  • How brand can promote the importance of a socially sustainable supply chain
  • How businesses can employ transparency and certifications to testify to the sustainability of their products
  • The business case for ensuring workforce nutrition
  • How businesses can begin tackling malnutrition in their supply chain

Learn more and register for free to attend the Vitafoods Europe 2021. 


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Christina Nyhus Dhillon
Senior Technical Specialist at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)


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Vitafoods Insights Podcast

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Podcast transcript:

Vitafoods Insights 00:05
Welcome to the Vitafoods Insights Podcast. Join us as we explore the latest science innovation, helping the global health and nutrition industry connect, develop and progress. Today's host is Carla Hill, contributing editor.

Carla 00:22
Hello and welcome to another Vitafoods Insights podcast. I'm delighted to be speaking with Christina Nyhus Dhillon today. Christina is Senior Technical specialist at GAIN- or the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. GAIN are a Swiss based foundation launched the United Nations in 2002 to tackle the human suffering caused by malnutrition. They work with governments, businesses and civil society to transform food systems so that they develop more nutritious food for all people, especially the most vulnerable. Here Vitafoods, part of our mission is to shape the food industry for optimal health through science and innovation, and to bring more health to more people and we're delighted to partner with GAIN and work closely with their scaling up nutrition business network to help us achieve this ambition. Ahead of Christina sustainability panel discussion at Vitafoods Europe 2021, she has kindly agreed to give us a bit of a taste of this session and share with us the work that GAIN do, why malnutrition is a topic of paramount importance to the nutraceutical industry, and what brands and manufacturers can do to ensure the nutrition of their supply chain. Christina, could you kick things off by introducing yourself in your own words and telling us a bit about your background?

Christina 01:34
Thanks, Carla, and it's a delight to be here with you. So yeah, I am a public health and international nutrition researcher. I've been working with GAIN for the last four years, but had been working in the international development field for about 20 years, in the area of nutrition, but primarily focused on reducing issues of malnutrition in low and middle income country contexts, mostly in Tanzania, Peru, and India, and I currently am based in Geneva, Switzerland.

Carla 02:03
Great. Thank you, Christina. And could you tell us a bit about how you got involved in GAIN and what GAIN do and what your mission is there.

Christina 02:10
As you mentioned, GAIN's mission is to advance nutrition outcomes by improving the consumption of safe and nutritious foods around the world, but especially for the most vulnerable. We have nine country offices in Africa and Asia and about four regional offices in US and in Europe. And I was really driven. I appreciate working for GAIN because our mission is so focused on food systems and improving food systems and addressing hunger and malnutrition and the inequalities of food in the world through a very food based approach, really multidisciplinary not just focused on health and working through health systems, which is the more traditional approach for nutrition in the past. And I very much am in line with their mission and their aims and have enjoyed working with GAIN.

Carla 02:58
Definitely. Thank you, Christina. Clearly, malnutrition is, sadly, such an important issue to our planet really today. Can you tell us more about how malnutrition relates to the nutraceutical industry?

Christina 03:08
Broadly, both malnutrition and obviously within the nutraceutical industry both sit within the broader scope of nutrition, with a focus on health and well being through food and nutrition as a fundamental source of health. You know, malnutrition is broader, it's poor nutrition, whether it's from too little or too much food, and insufficiencies in diets. And malnutrition, it's good to remember that malnutrition can include both sides of the spectrum. So everything from underweight but also overweight and the problems we have in the world around overweight and obesity. And then underlying all of that this kind of hidden hunger issue, which is micronutrient malnutrition, that is not as visible externally, but affects 1 billion people in the world. So together between your issues of underweight, overweight and hidden hunger, about one in three people on the planet suffer from some form of malnutrition. So it really is kind of all around us. So for me, I know less about the nutraceutical industry, quite frankly, from what I understand it's really aimed at kind of extracting important ingredients in foods and what is available in the natural world to address specific purposes or fine tune good health and nutrition, maybe to prevent or to treat specific ailments. But I think essentially both come back to the importance of food as a source of health.

Carla 04:31
It's getting that link there, is is really strong. And whose responsibility within the nutraceutical industry is malnutrition do you think Christina? Is it consumers responsibility or brand owners or ingredient manufacturers even?

Christina 04:43
Good question, but honestly, I think nutrition is everyone's responsibility throughout the entire supply chain, certainly in this industry. But because of how pervasive malnutrition is, it really is everyone's responsibility. Now nutrition stems from a broken food system and Economic inequities throughout the world, but it's preventable and it can be solved. We produce enough food in the world to address food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition. But the right food isn't always available, affordable or desired or even safe. So I think really, it's important for everyone everywhere to take some responsibility for malnutrition.

Carla 05:18
And do you think that there is amongst consumers an increasing demand for nutritious and safe food?

Christina 05:24
Generally? Yes, I think there it is. But it depends on the populations and the areas in the world differ, I think. I think consumers in high income countries are increasingly focused on healthy foods and the health of foods, and even the source of foods. And if you think about it, kind of around the world, many of the traditional diets all around the world are wholesome and nutritious end up in the shelves. But I think somewhere along the way, whether through economic, disparities, globalisation and other things, somehow we've lost our way a little bit, perhaps maybe the food industry is a little too influential. And most consumers can be easily influenced by marketing or confusing health claims. So we don't always as consumers make the best choice for ourselves in terms of what are nutritious and safe foods. But generally, I think people do want and demand nutritious and safe foods, it's not always clear what they are, though.

Carla 06:18
And while we're talking about that and the way in which consumers can be quite influenced by marketing, how do you think brands can promote the importance of a socially sustainable supply chain?

Christina 06:29
Good question. I think social sustainability should include all people who are involved with the brand, from those who originally produced the products or the ingredients, perhaps the growers and pickers of some of the items to those who are involved throughout the supply chain processors and retailers. And then, of course, all the way to the consumer. I think we need to consider all of them for a socially sustainable supply chain. For me, there are different, I guess, approaches that companies and brands might want to take for those different types of sectors or populations. And in my opinion, generally, it's those who are at the producer and who tend to be the most vulnerable. And I think that's where concentrated efforts need to be made really protect those workers.

Carla 07:16
For sure. And while we're talking about the way in which really, this covers the whole supply chain, from farmer and producer to consumer, I know that transparency is a really kind of hot topic and in demand issue for this problem. How do you think businesses can provide transparency to consumers to certify that their products are in fact sustainable? Maybe there's some kind of labelling or certification that they can employ here?

Christina 07:40
There are a number of certification standards, most of them, of course, you know, better than I do, but revolve more around environmental sustainability. But there are those that do consider social sustainability. And there are those that look at standards that considers supply chain workers and their well being. Most of those tend to focus around things like living wages, fair and ethical labour and employment, maybe occupational safety, and some do consider health. But there's only one that at least that we've come across that we understand that really addresses the basic right to food and the nutritional health of workers. I think it's called the food security standard. And it's been developed by Welder hunger, if I'm not pronouncing that correctly, and the World Wildlife Fund, but I think there are other standards that are out there that kind of the broader ones that talk about protection of workers and people. They include things like B Corp, rain forest alliance, fairtrade- those are all kind of into the realm of social sustainability.

Carla 08:44
Can you tell us a bit more about the business case for tackling malnutrition? It's clear that, you know, there's a real ethical reason for businesses and consumers to care and show that by caring about the supply chain, but in terms of the kind of economic viability here, can you tell us a bit more about why it makes sense for a business to be socially sustainable?

Christina 09:03
GAIN believes and we believe that social sustainability presents a very strong business case.  We believe that human race resources are the workers in our organisation, in a supply chain, in a company, are often the strongest asset. And when they're healthy and safe and happy, this is reflected in the production of a company and their reputation. And I think COVID-19 pandemic has really highlighted this for so many organisations and businesses around the world. In fact, during the pandemic food system workers, in particular, were really those who were considered essential frontline workers just like health workers, and we have them to thank for keeping our food systems functioning during the pandemic. But in terms of a business case, you know, yes, we know the consumers and more and more keen to buy products from companies who are socially conscious. We again, we've worked with our partners to foresight to conduct a study on the business case, the kind of the softer business case for addressing nutritional needs of workers in the tea, the garment and the cocoa sectors. And we found that our partners were overwhelmingly convinced of the business case in investing in the nutrition of workers. The financial returns were not as always easy to estimate or attribute, but the softer issues like for brands and buyers, we found that they felt the brand reputation, risk mitigation, ensuring the quality supply of their products, and addressing sustainability commitments were all strong benefits to investing in worker nutrition. On the producer sider, I think ingredient suppliers, as you call them, they reported increases in revenues and reduced costs. They felt that doing so attracted new buyers and that their workers wellbeing was a reason to invest in good nutrition. And then when you look at the literature, specifically for Workforce nutrition programmes, in these tend to often have come from kind of more formal workplace settings, but there's overwhelming evidence that investing in worker nutrition has a strong business case. So let's say one of the elements of workforce nutrition that GAIN defines is supporting women returning to work with continued breastfeeding because there’s benefits nutritionally to the child, but also benefits to the woman and their health, but also business returns in their reduced absenteeism because their children are less sick, and they're lower turnover. So women who have a breastfeeding friendly work environment are more likely to stay with those employers. Anyways, breastfeeding support programmes have in and of themselves, well researched three to one return on investment. And then when you start to look at other nutrition programmes that are within a wider kind of health and wellbeing approach, you can see six to one return on investment. Johnson and Johnson has seen that among their own studies, so again, these come back as reductions in absenteeism, presenteeism, reduce healthcare costs, lower worker turnover, among other things.

Carla 12:10
Thanks Christina, it's so interesting and it's great to hear really that tackling malnutrition can be a win win for businesses in this area and help people in their supply chain and be good for their business at the same time. I'm sure there are many brand owners and businesses listening to this and getting really inspired about the things that they can do. What are some kind of small wins or low hanging fruits in this area? How can businesses start thinking about tackling issues of malnutrition?

Christina 12:35
It's very context specifically, obviously, it depends on the business and what type of workers, how many workers are in the company or in the supply chain. Often brands start to begin with their own employees. If they're large numbers, and then we're really encouraging many to reach into their supply chain, where they have influenced and really reached some of the indirect workers. We at GAIN, we co-lead the workforce nutrition alliance with the consumer goods forum, and the sun business network is part of that alliance. And we have identified four areas which are supported in the literature and the evidence, which have positive returns on nutrition for workers, as well as many of them have business cases, as the one I mentioned with breastfeeding support. But the other three areas that are important, the first one is trying to improve access to healthy foods to workers in their work contexts. So that can be anything from altering vending machine options to providing nutritious meals at work, or in retail spaces in the workplace. The second area that employers can work on is in providing workers some diet related health checks, and then offering some access to follow up dietary counselling. All of this, of course, should be very confidential and private for a worker and voluntary, but that has often been employed as a strategy with benefits in terms of changes to dietary patterns, things like weight reduction, risks for noncommunicable diseases, and even for cholesterol, diabetes, those types of things. And then the fourth area, after breastfeeding, is just offering information around nutrition education and informing workers around small changes that can be made to improve diet significantly. In some contexts, just a little bit of information can go a long way. And in other contexts, that nutrition education is giving guidance and pointers to workers in appropriate kind of environment in the workplace, whether it's in the canteen line to provide information about maybe caloric content, or if you're working in supply chains, providing information to working mothers on the nutritional benefits of providing diverse diet to their families, including their children. So there is a lot of support for companies who want to start workforce nutrition programmes. We offer a lot of information free on our website. You can download guidebooks, you can look it up at the workforce nutrition Alliance, or through the GAIN website, or even the consumer goods forum website.

Carla 15:09
Great. Thank you, Christina, it's great to know that visitors can start thinking about this and can start making a real difference, which is super important. So thinking long term about our aims, and in this area, what does a truly socialist supply chain look like? How do we know if we are doing enough to ensure the health and nutrition of our workforce? And what should those long term goals look like?

Christina 15:32
I think a truly socially responsible supply chain is one that considers the whole well being of the people on whom the final product is dependent, recognises their value and their worth, and perhaps provides fair prices which translate to living wages and living incomes. It contributes to their health and safety so that future generations are increasingly better off, not only just socially, physically, economically, and also mentally.

Carla 16:01
Thanks Christina, and thanks so much for giving such a great taster of your contribution to our sustainability panel discussion at Vitafoods Europe. Can you conclude our chat today by telling our listeners why it's important they attend or tune into panel discussion at Vitafoods Europe.

Christina 16:17
For me, I think adjusting some of our business models to address sustainability is a worthy cause, but it's also inevitable. The conversation currently I feel is dominated by environmental sustainability, and probably rightly so. But it's important to remember that social sustainability is equally important. Going back to the statistics, with one in three people on the globe malnourish, it's clear that the epidemic of poor diets needs to be addressed. And it needs to be addressed by everyone working together. Brands and ingredient suppliers attending the Vitafoods Europe already have the well being of people's health as part of their core business, so I think it's an easy reach to extend this ideology and mentality into supply chain workers and to bring more value to their products in the end.

Carla 17:03
Thanks Christina. I'm really excited for our panel discussion. I think it's gonna be great to really see how holistic solutions are important. And like you say, it's not just about environmental sustainability. It's also about the social side, the economic side. And that's something that we really believe in it at Vitafoods, and we're excited to have that conversation and get into the real issues then for that discussion. And I think that wraps us up really nicely for today. Christina, thank you so much for coming on the show. It's been an absolute pleasure to have you. And I'd like to remind listeners if they want to hear further insights from Christina, which I certainly do, during our panel discussion at 1pm on the 5 of October CET, register for Vitafoods Europe 2021. And you can attend either in person or virtually this year. That's all for now. Thanks again, Christina. And see you're very soon.

Christina 17:50
Thanks, Carla.

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