Food meets health: Why the world needs a ‘metabolic reset’

  • Chronic disease driven by processed food provided the backdrop for COVID-19 to spiral out of control.
  • Fundamental and structural changes are needed in the way we engineer foods, with metabolic health as the industry’s North Star.
  • A scalable, replicable framework being championed by KDD is the “metabolic matrix”, a science-based template for designing foods that ensure metabolic health.

Metabolic health is the key to long-term nutritional and economic security. The Middle East is the cradle of civilisation, but it must now rise to the task of becoming the cradle of nutritional innovation as well. For this reason, the metabolic reset framework addresses stakeholders from the MENA region in order to initiate a conversation to forge a new alliance where food meets health.

Reformulation is standard in the processed food and beverage industry. It happens for many reasons, but increasingly because nutritional science is evolving, and many segments of consumers are calling for cleaner, healthier, better-for-you ingredients in prepared foods. The cry has grown even louder as public health agencies lead the charge to expand the focus beyond products to include health outcomes.

In a world still reeling from the global COVID-19 pandemic, one cannot ignore the fact that three out of four leading risk factors affecting its survivability are metabolically related. Chronic disease driven by processed food provided the backdrop for COVID-19 to spiral out of control.

Diabetes, just one of the metabolic diseases that are devastating human health, currently affects 468 million people. An additional 316 million with impaired glucose tolerance are at high risk from the disease, which is expected to increase to 471 million by 2035, according to the International Diabetes Federation. Diabetes is on the rise all over the world, and many countries are struggling to keep pace. The most vulnerable 80% of people with diabetes live in low- and middle-income countries. Still, even the wealthiest nations on earth are being ravaged by the disease, which is eating away at health care budgets at an alarming rate.

A diabetes epidemic is sweeping the MENA region. Based upon International Diabetes Federation (IDF) estimates, three countries from the Arab world are among the top 10 countries worldwide for the prevalence of T2DM: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. By 2045, the total expenditure on diabetes in the region is estimated to reach $37.1 billion.

Public health experts have been pleading with the food industry to reduce added sugar, which is now in 75% of all foods sold. The World Health Organization has recommended, conservatively, that the upper limit of added sugar in the diet should be no more than 10% of total calories (approximately 12 teaspoons per day). If this target were taken seriously, most countries would need to reduce added sugar consumption by 50% or more. Thus far, companies have attempted reductions of only 14-15% – a fraction of what is needed.

Image: KDD Product Metabolic Matrix

What is clear is that reformulation is just not enough. New recipes are not enough. New labels are not enough. We need fundamental and structural changes in the way we engineer foods, with metabolic health as the industry’s North Star. The industry tells us, “We are what we eat.” In actuality, we are what we metabolize. In other words, nutrition, and our entire paradigm of how we view any food or its components, must ultimately be measured by its metabolic impact.

This is a complex challenge, because no one company or government can solve this alone. We need a scalable, replicable framework that is embraced by multiple sectors within the food system. One such framework being championed by KDD is the “metabolic matrix”, a science-based template for designing foods that insure metabolic health. For such an approach to work, industry must realize that metabolic health is the long-term key to financial health.

The need for establishing a systemic framework to address metabolic health in the MENA region is evident. An effective alliance supporting action at a countrywide or regional level is essential to provide the impetus for change.

Such an alliance of forward-thinking medical, economic and political leaders is called for, and immediate actions must be taken to not only educate, but to forge policies and practices that can be embraced and propagated as a region, with strategies that focus and intersect at multiple levels: consumer, industry, health and government.

There is also an opportunity to look beyond deep division lines to unite around common health goals and actions that will benefit all countries involved. Given the convergence of chronic and acute diseases affecting all in the region, key stakeholders must address food security by fostering positive nutrition that addresses public health. Nutritious, metabolically supportive, safe, affordable and accessible food is fundamental to regional security.

There is no logical reason why the food and beverage industry can’t work in full partnership with nutrition scientists, public health authorities and consumer health advocates. Our collective health and economies are at stake, and we have everything to gain through engagement and partnership.

The Metabolic Reset model is proposed by KDD, a member of the Regional Action Group of the Middle East and North Africa as an Actionable Idea under the Principles of Stakeholder Capitalism for the Middle East and North Africa.

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