Policy overhaul needed: Food industry's impact on global brain health

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In a recent study published by the Baker Institute, researchers propose several policy solutions that can effectively target different aspects of the food industry that contribute to the development of various physical and mental diseases throughout the world, with a particular focus on improving brain health.

Study: Good Food is Vital for Brain Health So We Must Change the Food Industry. Image Credit: NDAB Creativity / Shutterstock.com Study: Good Food is Vital for Brain Health So We Must Change the Food Industry. Image Credit: NDAB Creativity / Shutterstock.com

How the food industry can impact brain health

Physical and environmental health, as well as safety and security, learning and social relationships, and access to quality care, can impact brain health. Maintaining optimal brain health is crucial for tackling contemporary societal issues, such as the adverse impacts of the food industry on communities, and promoting innovation.

Various environmental factors have been shown to influence brain health, some of which include nutrition and exposure to toxins or pollutants present in food, medication, water, or air. Although the global food industry has expanded to meet growing population demands, it is responsible for up to one-third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 70% of freshwater withdrawals, all the while remaining a major source of both single-use plastic production and pollution. Furthermore, this industry is a primary contributor to global deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Importantly, the adverse effects associated with the global food industry can have a negative impact on brain health. Ultra-processed foods, which currently account for up to 56% of the total daily energy intake in various countries throughout the world, can contribute to the development of many diseases, including mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, by increasing inflammation and oxidative stress, reducing neurogenesis and brain plasticity, and disrupting the gut-brain axis.  

In addition to the harmful effects directly associated with ultra-processed foods, various toxins have also been linked to the industrial farming practices used to acquire these products and their packaging. The intensive use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers, for example, can significantly reduce microbial biodiversity within the soil and food products while simultaneously increasing the levels of endocrine disruptors present in these products that can disrupt the microbiome and contribute to neurotoxicity.

Policy changes to limit the industrial impact on brain health

The researchers of the current study propose an ecological approach that incorporates economic, environmental, and political considerations to reduce the harmful effects of the corporate food industry on global brain health. Some of these recommendations include front-of-package labeling requirements warning against the health effects associated with ultra-processed foods, the implementation of subsidies for unprocessed or minimally processed foods while taxing industrial food products that offer little to no nutritional value, and developing food assistance programs that promote diets rich in unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods.

It is also imperative that public health officials and policymakers communicate how food can impact brain health, particularly through its connection of the gut-brain axis, to the general public. These open conversations will support beneficial dietary behavior changes, particularly in vulnerable groups like young men and pregnant women. Furthermore, shifting the focus from how certain foods contribute to weight loss to their impact on mental, brain, and gut health may also improve dietary habits and choices.

Under the Convention of the Rights of the Child, federal governments are responsible for correcting misinformation on commercial milk formula products marketed with misleading health claims. Therefore, enforcing these regulations by national governments is crucial to ensure that companies making these claims are held accountable.  

Promoting nutritional brain health science advancements

Over the past decade, researchers have made significant advancements in the field of nutritional psychiatry. Whereas some of the earliest studies in this field confirmed the association between diet quality and clinical psychiatric disorders, more recent studies have demonstrated that certain dietary changes can significantly improve severe major depressive disorder symptoms.  

Recent clinical trials have confirmed the therapeutic potential of certain diets, particularly the Mediterranean diet, in mitigating clinical depression. Thus, translating these findings into clinical practice and recommending other lifestyle behavior changes can improve treatment outcomes for many patients with mood disorders.

As this research advances, it is crucial for nutritionists, psychiatrists, psychologists, environmental health, and public health professionals to collaborate with each other to support the development and implementation of effective public health policies. Ultimately, these policies will improve access to healthy foods, limit the consumption of ultra-processed foods, and provide educational resources to the public on how diet can impact brain health.   

Journal reference:
  • Eyre, H. A., Berk, R. A., Dunlop, S., et al. (2023). Good Food is Vital for Brain Health So We Must Change the Food Industry. Baker Institute. doi:10.25613/1XYC-TM97.
Bhavana Kunkalikar

Written by

Bhavana Kunkalikar

Bhavana Kunkalikar is a medical writer based in Goa, India. Her academic background is in Pharmaceutical sciences and she holds a Bachelor's degree in Pharmacy. Her educational background allowed her to foster an interest in anatomical and physiological sciences. Her college project work based on ‘The manifestations and causes of sickle cell anemia’ formed the stepping stone to a life-long fascination with human pathophysiology.


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