'Junk food': bad for your health, bad for your rights, warns UN expert

11 June 2014

Challenging the world to get serious about the battle against “junk food,” a United Nations health expert today called on all countries to urgently adopt measures that promote the availability and nutritious value of healthy foods and regulate the marketing of sugary drinks, burgers, pizzas and potato chips – foods that, ultimately, are as deadly as they are tasty.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, Anand Grover, blamed junk food – ultra-processed and ready to eat, but energy-dense and containing “empty calories” devoid of nutritional value –for the global obesity epidemic and urged the international community to deal with the alarming increase in deaths from diet-related diseases.

Presenting his final final report to the UN Human Rights Council, which began its 26th session in Geneva yesterday, the Special Rapporteur warned delegations about disturbing figures, according to which 2.1 billion people worldwide are overweight or obese, and at least 2.8 million die every year because of their weight.

“The culprit is ‘junk food,’” Mr. Grover said. “Containing high levels of sugar, salt, trans-fats and saturated fats, this ‘junk’ has unfortunately replaced healthy foods in our diets.”

Primarily responsible for the burgeoning rates of obesity and non-communicable diseases across the world, “junk food is not a simple public health issue or a medical concern, it poses a serious challenge to our lives, our health and our rights,” he added.

According to the expert, policies of globalization, market consolidation by transnational companies and supermarket chains, skewed foreign direct investment, aggressive advertising of ultra-processed foods and changes in our lifestyles have driven the social transition to unhealthy diets.

To reverse the obesity epidemic, Mr. Grover urged States to implement their human rights obligations, not only by providing nutritious food but also by instituting measures to reduce the burden of diseases linked to junk food.

In particular, the Special Rapporteur recommended that States formulate multi-sectoral policies with a view to, among others, promoting the availability and accessibility of healthy and nutritious foods; developing food and nutrition guidelines for healthy diets; ensuring that accurate information related to healthy diets is made available, thus allowing consumers to make informed choices; and regulating marketing and advertising of junk food; and adopting consumer-friendly labelling of food products.

The human rights expert also underlined “the key role of the food industry in addressing the deleterious trend of unhealthy foods” and urged the industry to refrain from activities undermining people’s right to health.

Where legislation is in place to discourage unhealthy foods and promote healthier options, Grover urged food and beverage companies to comply with such laws and stop any activity undermining them, he declared.


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