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 latest projects include:

  • Food Policy Index for Australia: This initiative benchmarks the obesity prevention policies of Australian state/territory 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. A Progress Update to the original 2017 assessment was launched in 2019.
  • Inside Our Food Companies: – 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. This project was awarded the prestigious VicHealth ‘Research into Action’ Award in 2018.
  • ACE-Obesity Policy: This project assessed the most cost-effective policy interventions for obesity prevention in Australia, including interventions across a range of sectors including food, physical activity and urban design.

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