Fighting food insecurity

U of M professor explores food equity, sugary drinks and healthy diets for children

Canada is currently facing severe levels of food insecurity.

In 2022, 18.4 per cent of Canadians across the provinces (and 19.6 per cent of Manitobans) lived in a food-insecure household, a number that increased since 2021. For the 6.9 million Canadians impacted, their experiences range from anxiety over the grocery bill, to skipping a meal, to not eating for days.

Natalie Riediger is an associate professor in the U of M’s department of food and human nutritional sciences whose work looks at food insecurity and food-related health inequities.

“Nutrition and food security are responsible for the greatest gains in life expectancy over the last 100 to 150 years globally,” Riediger said. “In terms of the future, I think it remains a critical issue.”

One of Riediger’s research interests is taxation policies surrounding sugar-sweetened beverages such as sodas, fruit drinks and energy drinks.

In 2022, the World Health Organization released its first global tax manual for sugar-sweetened beverages. The manual discussed the experiences of countries like the United Kingdom, South Africa and Mexico that have successfully implemented the tax.

Proponents of the taxation policy cite strong evidence linking sugar-sweetened beverages to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and chronic disease onset. A 20 per cent taxation on these beverages is postulated to decrease consumption by 10 per cent in its first year of implementation.

Despite this, the discussion around a sugar-sweetened beverage tax may not be as straightforward as it seems.

“I was drawn to that because of how grey it was,” Riediger said. “It’s not all black and white. Dietary patterns are changed by our context.”

Using a Canadian social justice perspective, an article Riediger co-authored examined the proposed tax policy.

The authors suggested that to make conclusions about taxation on sugar-sweetened beverages, policymakers should consider the lessons learned from taxation on tobacco. It was effective at reducing smoking rates in the overall population, but it did not affect all people equally. Smoking prevalence decreased much less among those with lower levels of education and those who belonged to lower socioeconomic groups.

There are also important differences in the types of beverages included in proposed taxation policies. Sweetened coffee, which is heavily consumed in regions of higher socioeconomic status, has not been the target of current or proposed taxation.

The authors highlighted this fact, stating that, “economically advantaged people may continue to drink their Frappuccino, untaxed, while less wealthy people are taxed for their cola, despite similar added sugar content.”

Additionally, the authors state that taxing sugar-sweetened beverages may further stigmatize obesity, as moralistic views of obesity often frame it as only a matter of personal responsibility, ignoring the role of obesogenic environments that promote eating in excess. This stigmatization is known to have mentally- and physically damaging ramifications.

“The research I’ve been working on really dives into the nuances of what food means and how it relates to our lives more broadly than just nutrition,” Riediger said.

Riediger noted that Indigenous people are highly represented in Winnipeg’s inner city population. The inner city region is disproportionately impacted by poverty.

“That’s something that struck me as being obviously very relevant to the Canadian context, but especially the Manitoban context.”

Much of her research focuses on food and health equity for Indigenous populations.

In another study, Riediger and her co-authors explored diet quality among Canadian Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth from 2004 to 2015. They found that, although food insecurity continues to profoundly impact Indigenous communities, diet quality has improved for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth.

The authors attributed these improvements in diet to limiting foods viewed as unhealthy (ice cream, candy, French fries, etc.) rather than introducing more healthy foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, etc.). They found that food insecurity may lead to poorer diet quality, widening health disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth.

Food insecurity is linked to many adverse health outcomes in children. It may lead to obesity, due to lower-income families choosing cheap, easy-to-prepare foods with low nutritional value. Children may have nutritional deficiencies, causing stunted growth or anemia. They may also experience challenges with emotional stability and feel fatigued during the day, impacting their academic performance.

Riediger emphasized the importance of food. As an essential commodity, food is connected to many fields of study.

Environmental science plays a tremendous role in securing the food we need to thrive. Food is a major contributor to the Canadian economy. Even social events and celebrations tend to incorporate the sharing of food. Whether medicine, dentistry or art, food is inherent to the human existence.

“Food transcends every single discipline,” Riediger said. “It’s a universal part of our lives.”