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Author: dholcomb

UGA receives multiyear grant to address obesity in Georgia

A community garden in Calhoun helps provide fresh produce to local residents. (Submitted photo)

December 5, 2023 by Lauren Baggett in UGA Today

The funds will be used to improve access to healthy foods and physical activity

The University of Georgia has been awarded $804,000 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to improve access to healthy foods and physical activity in Georgia counties with high rates of obesity.

Two decades after being named an epidemic, high rates of obesity persist nationwide. In Georgia, one-third of adults are obese, and therefore, are at higher risk for a number of negative health outcomes – heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, chronic pain and more.

Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise, along with sleep and other health promoting behaviors, is the best way to prevent these chronic diseases, but that’s not always easy to do.

“We can teach people to eat healthy every day, but if those people do not have places to buy affordable fruits, vegetables and whole grains, they will never be able to eat healthy foods that nourish their body. Similarly, we can tell people to exercise and ways they can be active, but if they don’t live in communities where they have safe places to be active, it is not going to happen,” said principal investigator Heather Padilla, an assistant professor of health promotion and behavior in the College of Public Health.

This funding will build on the success of CDC’s High Obesity Program in Georgia, which served Calhoun, Clay, Dooly, Stewart and Taliaferro counties. Together with these communities, UGA research and Extension faculty and staff improved food options for nearly 69,000 people, providing access for 31,041 people to purchase or receive healthier foods in 18 locations and implemented healthy nutrition standards in eight community sites. In addition, all five program communities saw improvements to infrastructure that make it easier to exercise.

Led by an interdisciplinary team of faculty in the UGA College of Public Health, College of Environment and Design, College of Family and Consumer Sciences, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and UGA Cooperative Extension, this new funding will support UGA Extension and its partners to address obesity in more counties and in new ways.

The project will introduce five new counties – Burke, McDuffie, Sumter, Washington and Rockdale – and will introduce new strategies to create social and physical environments where individuals and families can access healthy foods and places to exercise and play.

“We are expanding from community gardens and retail environments to implementing policies and food service guidelines to ensure healthy foods are available where foods are served and sold, for example, in workplaces or at sports events. We are also working with partners to increase fruit and vegetable voucher incentive programs and produce prescription programs,” said Padilla.

Beginning with Rockdale in the first year, counties will undergo landscape assessments, which will include input from community stakeholders and organizations already working in those communities to align resources and priorities. The new counties will follow the model established in the previous funding cycles, working with county UGA Extension agents who will convene community members from multiple sectors to provide input on community needs and priorities.

“UGA Family and Consumer Sciences Extension agents support people in making healthy decisions and meeting the needs of their families. We bring the latest research-based information and programs to the people in Georgia to improve their lives. This project is a great example of how we are extending the newest science and resources from the university to the citizens of Georgia to address critical community needs,” said Alison Berg, associate professor and Extension nutrition and health specialist in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

This new grant will build on previous success and explore opportunities to leverage other Extension and public health programs, resources and relationships, including the UGA SNAP-Ed program.

Making change can be an uphill battle, and having community input and collaboration is essential, noted Padilla and Berg.

“We want to get partners from a variety of domains to the table to try to figure out how we can alter the physical and social environment to at least make it a more level playing field, where people have the opportunity to make the healthy choice,” said Padilla.

Additional project partners include Jung Sun Lee, Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, and Donnie Longenecker, a senior lecturer in the College of Environment and Design.

Impact of food nutrition labels on retail pricing and consumer purchasing

By Emily Cabrera
Published on 11/20/23, CAES Newswire
Woman checking yogurt food label
For average consumers who make countless food decisions each day, lengthy Nutrition Facts labels are often challenging to review and understand when making quick decisions. But interpretive front-of-package (FOP) labels may have unintended consequences on purchasing behavior that lead to nutritional disparities.

The Nutrition Facts labels on the back of packaged food help consumers by breaking down the ingredients and nutritional value of the product. That information is supposed to help consumers make informed food choices, but do these labels provide a complete picture of what “healthy” really means? And does the way information is provided on food labels change consumers’ perceptions and purchasing behavior?

To answer these questions, Chen Zhen, a University of Georgia professor in food choice, obesity and health in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics is leading a study recently funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture. In partnership with international colleagues, Zhen will observe and compare the influence of nutrition labeling systems used in the U.S. and the European Union (EU) to inform future policy decisions in those countries.

The four-year, $794,000 award will help the researchers better understand how the use of supplementary nutrition information on packaged food labels, particularly front-of-package (FOP) labels, have unintended consequences across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Zhen, faculty in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), said his work centers on the economics of nutrition and healthy eating. “There’s been a long-standing interest in the causal effect of providing additional information on food labels to consumers, particularly interpretive labeling that communicates more than just numeric facts,” explained Zhen.

The evolution of Nutrition Facts labels

In 1990, the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) mandated standardized Nutrition Facts labels on most packaged foods. However, for average consumers who make countless food decisions each day, these lengthy labels are often challenging to review and understand when making quick decisions, Zhen explained.

In the decade following the passage of the NLEA, the consumer use of labels declined and the obesity epidemic escalated, prompting the search for supplemental labeling strategies to help consumers use the information in a more comprehensive manner. Zhen said that strong international interest to improve diet quality led to the use of FOP nutrition labels that provide a quick summary of the food’s healthfulness.

Companies began adopting FOP summary labels, which penalize nutrients and nutrition factors that are generally considered to have unfavorable health effects and reward those that are beneficial to health. One such company was NuVal. At its peak, more than 2,000 grocery and retail stores had adopted the NuVal FOP label. By 2013, Zhen said the algorithm used by NuVal had become more rigorous, assigning a numeric score — with one being the least healthy to 100 being the healthiest — to provide a quick snapshot for busy consumers.

How labeling impacts pricing strategies and consumer behavior

“I had taken great interest in what impacts this change might have down the line,” said Zhen. “Using yogurt as a case study, what my colleagues and I saw was a marked reduction in NuVal scores for most yogurts after the algorithm changed — the products essentially became less healthy overnight.”

Interestingly, NuVal closed its doors just three years after the new algorithm was implemented. Zhen suspected that retailers began opting out of using the FOP summary labels in response to some packaged food products receiving lower ratings.

Zhen and his colleagues observed yogurt sales before and after the algorithm was revised, reporting an obvious decline in sales for products that received lower scores and a reactionary price reduction in the lower-scoring products — a tactic Zhen believes was an effort by retailers to compensate for the loss of sales.

“And that strategy worked to a degree,” he said. “When prices declined, even though the products had received lower scores, sales picked up again.”

Zhen wanted to know whether consumers’ purchasing behaviors were the only factors influenced by perceptions of the healthfulness of foods.

Unintended consequences of creating food disparities

“We are keen to believe there are unintended consequences happening here that negatively impact consumers,” he said.

When less healthy foods become less expensive, people are more inclined to purchase them, regardless of their health score, Zhen said, adding that the inverse is true for higher-scoring foods. In their study of yogurt sales, retailers increased prices for healthier products.

“The implication is that people with more money are able to purchase healthier foods, whereas people with less money are more likely to purchase less healthy foods,” he said. “We call this a nutritional disparity, or health gap, that can be seen in tandem with the wealth gap.”

Published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, the research earned the Best Article in Food Safety and Nutrition Award from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association earlier this summer.

International partnership looking for similar trends in Europe

That research served as the preliminary work for the current study, in which the international team will look at a similar labeling system called Nutri-Score being used throughout Europe. The team is collecting data on all packaged food items to see what potential purchasing changes occur across all food types in response to the revised algorithm.

Joining Zhen from Singapore is Eric Finkelstein, a renowned health economist who has performed groundbreaking research on the economic cost of obesity, and Sinne Smed, an expert on food policy issues in the EU from the University of Copenhagen.

At the beginning of 2023, the EU mandated that Nutri-Score revise its algorithm similarly to the updated system NuVal adopted before going out of business.

Scanner and sales data on packaged products will be used to compare what, if any, differences can be seen before and after the implementation of the new algorithm, Zhen said. The team will also be looking for pricing adjustments made by retailers in response to changes in scores and how price fluctuations may affect purchasing behaviors.

Finkelstein and Smed will compare their findings to the U.S. data to learn whether similar trends play out in terms of consumer behaviors and pricing adjustments.

Implications for food labeling legislation

Zhen said the work has huge implications for the near future, as the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations encouraged the exploration of mandatory FOP labels in its agriculture spending bill for fiscal year 2022. In September 2022, the White House announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would research, develop and propose plans to standardize an FOP labeling system for packaged foods to help consumers, particularly those with lower nutrition literacy, quickly and easily identify foods that are part of a healthy eating pattern.

“Our analysis will help address this concern and provide estimates of the net effects of NuVal and Nutri-Score for both more and less advantaged households in an effort to inform policymakers of the likely effects of a mandatory nutrition label,” explained Zhen.

As more EU member countries and food companies voluntarily adopt the Nutri-Score label, understanding the effect of Nutri-Score on consumer demand and retail prices will benefit U.S. exporters who will eventually need to decide whether to affix the Nutri-Score symbol to products exported to the European market, Zhen added.

Emily Cabrera is a writer and public relations coordinator for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia.

Noble named fellow of The Obesity Society

Emily Noble, associate professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences’ department of nutritional sciences, has been named a fellow of The Obesity Society, the leading international professional society focused on obesity science, treatment and prevention.

The distinction recognizes Noble’s demonstrated record of contributions to the field of obesity research.

“The Obesity Society brings together clinicians, policy makers, educators, and researchers to address the needs of people living with obesity,” Noble said. “My research focuses on understanding the critical role of the brain in regulating body weight by impacting food intake and energy expenditure. The Obesity Society has been highly supportive of my research in the neuroscience of obesity throughout my training and my career. I am really honored to have been selected as a fellow of The Obesity Society.”

Noble arrived at UGA in 2019, having previously served as a research assistant professor at the University of Southern California. Prior to that role, she served as a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience at USC.

She has published widely in the field and recently was awarded a five-year, $764,295 Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

As principal investigator of the grant, Noble and her team are investigating melanin concentrating hormone (MCH) and the neural regulation of feeding.

The Noble Lab at UGA seeks to better understand how the brain controls behaviors such as food impulsivity, food motivation, food preference and food overconsumption, as well as individual variation in energy expenditure and physical activity.

The Obesity Society was founded in 1982 and has approximately 2,800 members worldwide. The organization’s mission is to advocate and promote the highest quality in research, clinical care, education and policy development to address the needs of people living with obesity.

“Dr. Noble continues to make signification contributions in the area of obesity research and is committed to advancing our understanding of obesity,” said Connie Rogers, head of the FACS department of nutritional sciences. “We’re proud to see her efforts recognized by The Obesity Society.”