Interview with Dr. Eva Winzer – MSCL Impressions

Eva Winzer is a post-doctoral researcher in Public Health Nutrition at the Medical University of Vienna, at the Centre for Public Health. She has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Nutritional Sciences and a Ph.D. in Endocrinology and Metabolism. Dr. Winzer has almost ten years of experience in Public Health Nutrition, Malnutrition, and Chronic Disease Prevention. Recently, she has included Digital Public Health in Health Promotion & Disease Prevention in her research focus, mainly Digital Food Environment.

Currently, she is a visiting scholar at the Department of Media & Communication at the Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU) of Munich. During her stay and hopefully beyond, she is working on the topic of science communication about planetary health with the Munich Science Communication Lab.

Q: How are you and your work related to the MSCL?

E.W.: Dr. Brigitte Naderer from the LMU of Munich at the Department of Media & Communication, my colleagues from the Medical University of Vienna at the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine and I conducted a content analysis on meals, snacks, and drinks that appeared in videos and posts by six of the most popular German-speaking influencers on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram. Together, the efforts of these three men and three women reach and influence more than 35 million followers and subscribers in the 13 to 17 age group. This study showed that three-quarters of the foods and beverages presented were so high in fat, sugar, and/or salt that, according to World Health Organization (WHO, 2022) guidelines, they should not be marketed to children. The majority of these products were ultra-processed foods (~80%). This finding is consistent with other studies, showing that ultra-processed food producers aggressively market their products and interfere with implementating policies and regulations to improve public and planetary health (Swinburn BA et al., 2019, Barlow P et al., 2018).

These foods have undergone several industrial processing steps and contain many ingredients and additives. As a result, they often contain a high amount of fat, sugar, salt, artificial colors, flavors, and stabilizers and no longer provide the key properties of healthy foods. The artificial additives are intended to give food flavor or enhance it, make it last longer, and spice it up visually. Examples include carbonated soft drinks, confectionery, snacks, compounded meat products or fast food, ready meals, and more (Monteiro CA et al., 2019). Ultra-processed foods are prevalent in diets worldwide (Monteiro CA et al., 2013), and their increased consumption has been linked to several chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease, and cancer (Elizabeth L et al., 2020). In addition, ultra-processed foods have been identified as one of the most critical diet-related environmental footprints (Hadjikakou M, 2017), and are associated with negative impacts on water consumption (Garzillo JMF et al., 2022). Other evidence suggests that ultra-processed foods use a lot of energy and land in their preparation and contribute to plastic packaging, pollution, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, as described in a recent article in The Conversation (Anastasiou K et al., 2022).

Furthermore, I participated in the workshop organized by the MSCL for co-creating communication on planetary health related to food and food systems on March 28th 2022. I joined the group “Dietary Choices & Self-efficacy”  in this workshop to discuss and develop ideas for experiments and to form teams. I contributed to the team of Lorenz Bodner and Yannick Loyoddin (students from the Medical University of Vienna) with their experiment proposal “Planetary Plate – Recipes Good for You & Good for the Planet.” Additionally, I contributed to the team of Prof. Eva Rehfuess (LMU, Public Health and Health Services Research) with the proposal titled “Influencing Planetary Health Nutrition – harnessing the power of social media to change narratives,” which was successfully funded and supported by the MSCL. Following the MSCL’s mission and goals, experimenting with influencer engagement as a channel for science communication (Su LYF et al. 2022, Caspari G. 2022) will allow the testing of new, innovative communication strategies in the field of nutrition transformation for planetary health towards social change and a transformative society. The motivation of this experiment was to expand the current knowledge on communication strategies in the field of planetary health and public health and to create space for new and innovative concepts.

Q: What’s the connection between science communication and planetary health in your work area? How does your time at the MSCL follow from what you are already doing?

E.W.: As a Nutritional Scientist, I believe planetary health and nutrition are connected. Nutrition, and especially a change in diet, can be seen as a “wicked problem” (Freidberg S. 2016), as there is no (simple) solution for society as a whole to bring current eating habits into line with the “ideal” of planetary nutrition. This is due, among other things, to the complexity of established eating habits in society. The influences on our eating habits range from prenatal imprinting, nutritional education, cultural imprinting, and available budget to health status, interest in nutrition, time commitment, and indirect factors such as exposure to advertising and politics  influencing the food system. All of these factors play a role in implementating scientific findings from research into practice. Planetary Health Nutrition is a way of eating that protects both human health and the planet now and in the future. The 2019 report of the EAT-Lancet Commission, for example, shows what this diet can look like, describing this necessary societal shift in nutrition (Willet W et al., 2019). The core elements are a change in dietary habits towards a more plant-sourced and thus more climate-friendly diet, improving food production and reducing food waste. Starting from the population’s current level of general food consumption, the consumption of foods such as fruit, vegetables, and legumes would have to increase significantly. In contrast, the consuming foods such as meat, other animal products, and ultra-processed foods would have to decrease significantly (Willet W et al., 2019, DGE 2019).

The connection between science communication and planetary health is still missing in my work. As this is a multidisciplinary topic, I would like to involve science communication more in future projects. Therefore, my time at MSCL is to follow on from what I have done so far, as science communication and planetary health should also be closely linked.

Q: What questions about the topic drive you the most? Do you have any related current projects?

E.W.: There are many questions about the topic that drive me. Yet the most important for me is how we can reduce the production, aggressively marketing, and consumption of ultra-processed foods. It might be one way by which we could reduce our environmental footprint and improve our health. These products have no nutritional role in healthy diets and are unnecessary for human nutrition. This also means that the environmental resources we use to create ultra-processed products could be avoided or re-routed into food products necessary for healthy diets. So, reducing ultra-processed foods could provide a unique opportunity for improving the health of both people and the planet.

We will continue our work in digital food marketing, as most of these products are ultra-processed foods and are marketed heavily, especially to children and adolescents. So, we must crack down on social media and challenge the role of influencers in junk food marketing. There is an urgent need for government action and the involvement of civil society to tackle this public and planetary health issue. Spain has recently announced plans to ban influencers pushing unhealthy (mostly high-processed) food and drink to children. Still, most countries, have no restrictions on marketing these foods on websites, social media, or mobile applications. Governments must adopt a comprehensive approach, targeting multiple media channels to encourage our children to make healthy nutrition choices.