Advancing Nutrition Innovation in an Era of Misinformation

Challenges and opportunities from the fourth annual Nutrition Innovation Summit

Leaders from across the food system convened to tackle a tough question this week at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy’s fourth annual Nutrition Innovation Summit.

The question posed during the Oct. 6 online event: How do we create the change we need in our food system, in an increasingly fast-moving economy, with pandemics and climate change looming large?

“This is, I think, the greatest overall single issue facing humanity today—how we’re going to fix the food system, whether in terms of nutrition, access, sustainability, or equity,” said Friedman School Dean Dariush Mozaffarian, who delivered opening and closing remarks.

The event included panels on: misinformation and nutrition science; building a platform for innovation; innovating with a focus on the consumer; and food systems innovation.

Friedman School panelists included Corby Kummer, Sean Cash, Parke Wilde, and Erin Coughlan de Perez. Other participants represented a wide range of organizations, including the Angiogenesis Foundation, nutrition communication consultant Eat Well Global, and About Fresh, a company whose fleet of retrofitted school buses and healthcare platform connect people in need with fresh food.

No matter what our role in the food system, we can all contribute to making it better, according to many of the panelists—and that work doesn’t have to be big or dramatic.

“Even small incremental steps toward getting it right can have huge effects for health and the health of the planet,” Mozaffarian said.

Below are key takeaways from two of the summit’s panels. A recording of the entire summit is available on the Food & Nutrition Innovation Summit 2021 website.

Panel: Nutrition Science and Misinformation, Challenges, and Opportunities

Misinformation. Disinformation. Too much info. Too little. A panel moderated by Corby Kummer, senior lecturer at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, food journalist, and commentator for The Atlantic, National Public Radio, and the Aspen Institute, cast a sharp eye on the fast-changing landscape of nutrition science and the challenges and opportunities to clear up confusion. Joining Kummer were: Tambra Raye Stevenson, MG04, and founder and CEO of WANDA (Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture), which focuses on reaching, teaching, and advocating for women and girls of African descent in the nutrition dietetics and agricultural spaces; Jennifer Pomeranz, interim chair, Department of Public Health Policy, New York University; and Sean Cash, Bergstrom Foundation Professor in Global Nutrition at the Friedman School.

Here are three takeaways that emerged from the conversation during the Nutrition and Misinformation panel (video):

The “Internet in everything” creates obvious and subtle impacts. “Our platformed society has Internet in everything,” said Stevenson. Not only is there a multiplicity of digital communications channels and social media but these privatized systems lack transparency, rely on hidden algorithmic systems that may have embedded biases, and are largely unaccountable under current public policy. Media fragmentation and decentralization impact discourse and potentially amplify and distort information. We must recognize and address this problem on multiple fronts.

We need to bring analog regulations into the digital age. Regulation has failed to keep up with changing technology and consumer behavior, ignoring huge swathes of communications media, said the panelists. One example, from Sean Cash: After years of discussion, in 2018, calorie-labeling regulations became mandatory for menu boards in chain restaurants. But the growth of online food ordering platforms, which aren’t covered, meant that those regulations quickly became irrelevant for a large segment of the population. “We’re regulating for the 20th century in a digital world,” Cash said. Although regulation is not a “silver bullet” and enforcement can be challenging, Cash said the U.S. can look to other countries such as Chile and Germany that have set high standards for marketing to children in through digital and social media.

Purchasing food online is “the Wild West,” said Pomeranz. “We need to reel in deceptive and misleading claims on websites and online marketing.” Even traditional nutrition information vehicles, such as labels on food packaging, need to be more robust. “We still need to address labeling gaps, particularly with fruit drinks and toddler drinks,” said Pomeranz. “For example, there’s no easy way to identify non-nutritive sweeteners unless you know the chemical name and read the ingredient list.”

We need a whole-society approach. We all have a role to play in addressing misinformation, whether individual, researcher, funder, health care provider, technology platform, or media channel, according to Stevenson. This means technology companies working with government working with researchers. Restoring trust, particularly among marginalized communities that have not been part of the main narrative, is paramount. Social media’s unique ability to support individualized messages can be divisive—but it can also enable those who distrust traditional information channels to partner in creating fact-based narratives that will inspire trust. 

Cash sees a role for positive interaction between the public and private sectors. Industry can move faster than regulators to identify future problems. “They can look for the win-win-win of doing right by their bottom line, consumers, and the planet.” Changes in consumer demand and behavior can be levers for corporate change, added Kummer, a self-described optimist, noting that companies have, for instance, recognized consumers’ desire for information about foods’ sugar content.

Panel: Food Systems Innovation

With the climate emergency at our doorstep, it’s important to grasp the scope of the problem—but also to take informed steps toward solutions, panelists said during this session on food systems innovation.

Katie Stebbins, executive director of the Tufts Food & Nutrition Innovation Institute, moderated the conversation, which included climate risk management researcher Erin Coughlan de Perez, who is an associate professor and Dignitas Chair at the Friedman School and research director at the Feinstein International Center—as well as senior advisor to the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

Coughlan De Perez was joined by Sara Eckhouse, executive director of FoodShot Global, which funds big ideas to improve the food system, and Laith Abu-Taleb, vice president of corporate affairs and general counsel at Mori, which manufactures natural and sustainable wrapping for food. Below are three takeaways from their conversation during the Food Systems Innovations panel (video):

It’s complicated. People tend to oversimplify their personal response to climate change due to what’s called “single action bias,” said Coughlan de Perez. “They think they can take one action and then dismiss this issue.” For example, people will commit to turn off their lights more, or to recycle, she said, when, in fact, they need to recognize that the problem is broader and multifaceted. “We not only need to recycle, but to do all sorts of things to reduce emissions, and also adapt to the changing climate,” Coughlan de Perez said. “Food systems are a big part of that.”

And making good decisions in our current food system is just as complex, according to Eckhouse. She pointed to the array of different food labels as one example. “Natural, sustainable, organic, generative, free range, cage free, fair trade—what are you supposed to prioritize?” she said. “There are all kinds of tradeoffs that make it very complex even for people who want to do the right thing and want to make changes.”

But it doesn’t have to be hard. One misconception is that shifting to processes and products that are better for the planet will be difficult and costly, Abu-Taleb said. But in fact, it can often be the opposite. “It’s not very hard to try to do good. Doing good is doing good business,” Abu-Taleb said. “You can actually be making a profit.”

For example, it’s not always a significant effort to reduce the number of company trucks on the road to cut down on emissions, Abu-Taleb said. And moves such as nixing plastic straws and redesigning your plastic lids can actually be cost-effective.

“We like to say not only is our change low-lift, it will make the process easier. It will save on freight insurance, food waste—every stage of the supply chain,” said Abu-Taleb. “Our goal is to say it’s not more difficult to change... it’s actually a better practice sometimes.”

There is hope. With climate refugees spilling over borders and smoke from California wildfires reaching people in New York, there is a new level of awareness about the need for change, Eckhouse said. “I think a lot of people are realizing it’s an emergency and realizing the global connectedness of these issues,” she said. “They’re no longer able to separate themselves from them.”

Abu-Taleb confessed that he doesn’t know the difference between free range and cage free—but he said it’s great that consumers are asking for one or the other. “There is clearly consumer interest in solving global problems that are interconnected,” he said. “And there are companies out there who have dedicated themselves to trying to solve them.”

Eckhouse said she’s particularly excited about research into the microbiome’s effect on both agriculture and human health, while Coughlan de Perez pointed to the Tufts Food Innovation Lab’s work on how to reduce post-harvest losses.

“What is thoroughly impressive to me is the win-win-win potential,” she said. “When I look at food products, I see incredible innovations that are good for climate and also for food security, and for making sure people have access to quality, affordable food for a long period of time.”

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