Food environments include the range of food sources and products that surround people as they go about their daily lives. Current research around food environments focuses on high income countries and shows significant methodological and conceptual gaps. The ANH Academy’s technical brief systematises current knowledge and puts forward a new framework to be applied in low and middle income countries.
Gaps in food environments research
Food environment research bridges several disciplines to bring together agriculturalists, economists, geographers, nutritionists, epidemiologists and public health researchers.
To date, such research has mainly been undertaken within high income countries (HICs) in response to the high prevalence of obesity and other nutrition related non-communicable diseases. However, there is an urgent need to develop this research in low and middle income countries (LMICs) to address key issues of food security and malnutrition in all its forms.
This requires a critical look at existing methods and definitions and their adaptation to new contexts.
New conceptual framework proposes two domains: external and personal
In its new technical brief 'Concepts and methods for food environment research in low and middle income countries', the ANH Academy’s Food Environments Working Group (ANH-FEWG) provides an overview of the field and proposes a conceptual framework that situates the food environment as the interface that mediates the acquisition of foods to people within the wider food system.
The food environment consists of two domains that share an inter-related set of physical, economic, and socio-cultural dimensions. The external food environment domain includes dimensions such as food availability, prices, vendor and product properties, and marketing and regulation within a given context. The personal food environment domain includes accessibility, affordability, convenience and desirability relative to individuals.
The group proposes that the food environment acts as an important interface between the wider food system and people’s food acquisition and consumption through continuous and complex interactions between external and personal food environments.
The conceptual framework is designed to align theoretical and conceptual constructs with existing and emerging methods and metrics and provide clarity to the commonly used, yet often confusing, terminology.
Methodological approaches in food environments research
Two broad methodological approaches to measuring food environments exist: geospatial and observational, each having its advantages and shortcomings.
The ANH-FEWG methodological framework presents these two approaches and maps them with regard to their application to the external food environment and the personal food environment, and further to the associated tools and measures.
Going forward, there is a need for mixed method approaches capable of capturing external and personal food environment domains and dimensions.
- Food environments research needs to include low and middle income countries
- New conceptual framework suggests food environments consist of the external and personal food environment
- There is a need for more use of mixed methods to address research gaps.
About the ANH Academy Working Groups
The Agriculture Nutrition and Health (ANH) Academy Technical Working Groups aim to synthesise innovative methods and metrics to better understand and address complex issues in the area of agriculture, nutrition and health. The Groups explore critical multidimensional issues by bringing together experts from various disciplines including agriculture, environmental science, epidemiology, nutrition, health, food environments, and foodborne diseases. The Working Groups analyse pathways linking agriculture and nutrition using inter-disciplinary approaches whilst experimenting with alternative teaching, knowledge sharing and dissemination methods.
The ANH Food Environment Working Group (ANH-FEWG) brings together food environment experts to discuss working definitions, key concepts, methodological approaches and current research gaps. The ANH-FEWG aims to provide a platform of consensus to guide and accelerate food environment research in low and middle-income countries (LMICs).