Experts call for food industry change to address mental health crisis

Deakin University researchers are part of a team of global experts calling for major changes to the food industry to address the mental health crisis gripping communities around the world.

In a newly published paper focusing on the importance of food systems for our brain health, the international team argues that today’s global food environments and systems are dominated by the corporate-industrial food industry that is undermining ‘brain capital’.

Brain capital is the economic importance of our brains, incorporating brain health and brain skills in the knowledge economy. In simple terms, brain capital is the collective intelligence, talents, and expertise of people that can be used for problem-solving, innovation, and learning. It highlights the significance of education, skill-building, mental health and intellectual capacity in achieving progress and success.

The framework assumes our brains are our greatest asset and provides an approach to define brain issues, quantify them, and track them.

Researchers from Deakin’s Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation (IMPACT) lead this ground-breaking field of research in Australia, working to introduce the idea of brain capital across diverse fields, including the food industry.

Alfred Deakin Professor Felice Jacka, Co-Director of Deakin’s Food & Mood Centre, said the rapid increase in inexpensive, convenient and heavily marketed ultra-processed foods on supermarket shelves was having a devastating impact on the health of our brains, our bodies and the planet.

“Ultra-processed food and Western dietary patterns play a role in the risk for, development and severity of mental disorders through their likely influence on various pathways, including inflammation, oxidative stress, reduction in brain adaptiveness and by disrupting the microbiota-gut-brain axis,”

Alfred Deakin Professor Felice Jacka

The paper, published by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, outlines the way such unhealthy diets, linked to negative changes in global food systems, impact mental and brain health – all of which are significant global health concerns.

Alfred Deakin Professor Michael Berk, Director of IMPACT said the most impactful solutions to build brain capital at scale lie in public policy, including diet and health related strategies, recommendations and guidelines.

“There needs to be a transformation of global food systems through public policy, reforming clinical care, and defending against misinformation driven by the food industry,” Professor Berk said.

Important recommendations include:

  • Targeting ultra-processed foods in dietary guidelines and policies,
  • Restrictions on advertising junk food especially to kids,
  • Developing food assistance programs to promote diets rich in unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods,
  • Requiring front-of-package labelling that warns against the health implications of ultra-processed foods available in public institutions,
  • Implementing zoning to limit the number of fast-food outlets near medical and educational institutions,
  • Policies to improve biodiversity and soil health by large-scale promotion and adoption of regenerative farming techniques.

Associate Professor Harris Eyre, Fellow in Brain Health at the Baker Institute and Adjunct Associate Professor with IMPACT said it was important for public health messaging and conversations to emphasise the impact of food systems and food intake on brain health, using the gut as a way to understand the effects of diet.

“This type of messaging has been shown to lead to changes in dietary habits, even in challenging populations like young men,” Associate Professor Eyre said.

“Shifting the focus of historic (and ineffective) diet-related policies and recommendations from weight reduction to improving mental, brain, and gut health by increasing diet quality may result in better food choices, especially when cost savings are highlighted,” he said.