Latin American countries taking aim at obesity and unhealthy foods while the U.S. sits on the sidelines

Feb 19, 2014 | 0 comments

Poverty and hunger will sadly always be with us. But in today’s age of abundant calories, the poor may also be obese – something governments in Latin America are waking up to.
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These countries are fighting junk food directly with a slew of initiatives that are making the region an incubator for ideas that could be adopted elsewhere, including in the U.S.

Chile, worried about expanding waistlines, has a new labeling system that comes into effect this year. The legislation forces food makers to emblazon packages with warning labels if their food is high in sugar, salt, calories or fat. There will also be a ban on advertising unhealthy products to children.

“This is absolutely astounding,” Marion Nestle, the influential food blogger and professor of food policy at New York University told the Christian Science Monitor. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Jason Block, an assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School’s obesity prevention program in Boston, believes Chile’s moves show promise, especially as the country is using a comprehensive approach in fighting obesity.

“This is important and has more chance of success than simply doing one thing,” he said by email. “Also, Chilean leaders seem willing to try a muted version of their proposal first and then build upon it after an initial trial period.”

In Ecuador, the government is requiring food imports to carry detailed labels describing ingredients. It has also ordered foreign fast food franchises to use locally produced products, including meats. The problem forcompanies like McDonald’s is that Ecuadorian beef, pork and poultry is mostly free-range and has a much lower fat content than than their feed-lot produced cousins the in the U.S.

The initiatives sweeping Latin America are making the region the world’s laboratory for government policy aimed at steering consumers away from processed food.

In a bold move last year, Mexico approved a tax of one peso (about eight cents) on each liter of sugary drinks sold as it tries to battle the country’s obesity crisis.

Other countries in Latin America have imposed taxes and banned McDonald’s from using toys to promote meals for children. Peru, Uruguay and Costa Rica have cut junk food from public schools since 2012, while Ecuador has imposed food labeling using a traffic light system.

Companies, for their part, feel they are being singled out. Arcos Dorados, the largest operator of McDonald’s restaurants in Latin America and the Caribbean, has criticized moves by government to target its restaurants but has also made changes to its menus.

“We changed our Happy Meals, cutting calories, sugar and salt, by bringing in fresh fruit, the option of cherry tomatoes, smaller French fry portions, and offering drinks of bottled water or milk,” said Sonia Ruseler, senior director, corporate communications at Arcos Dorados.

Will the food fight spread?
Outside of Latin America, however, fighting unhealthy foods with government decree has proved difficult. Denmark backed off on its sugar tax because the government found its citizens were crossing the border to avoid fat taxes.

In New York, the courts struck down former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on super-size sugary drinks last year. The city’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, said he plans to pursue the issue but he will be up against the same deep pockets and creative campaigns of the food industry.

While major food processors rail again restrictions on their business, major studies show an overabundance of sugar in food is at the root of many health issues. One study spearheaded by the University of California in San Francisco concluded that a 10% reduction in U.S. sugar consumption would avert 240,000 diabetes cases annually, as well as prevent heart attacks and other health-related deaths.

The U.S. food industry has been successful in stopping a number of initiatives to label genetically modified foods and so it would be expected that other restrictions on their products would be fought with similar ferocity.

Not all food makers, however, object to governmental labeling initiatives. Organic food packagers are enjoying strong sales, owing a lot to the fact they are not part of the industrial food complex.

“We are very concerned about worldwide increases in serious health issues, such as diabetes and obesity, and we are supportive of comprehensive efforts to help solve these problems,” said Andy Berliner, CEO and co-founder of Amy’s Kitchen, which markets itself as the country’s “leading natural frozen food brand”.

He said the company supports food labeling for better choices, the labeling of GMOs and other nutritional information. “Accurate labeling and nutrition education benefits the organic food industry, the global food industry as a whole, and ultimately everyone who eats!”

There are a number of state and city-level initiatives but health critics believe countries such as the U.S. need a national food and health policy, akin to efforts in Latin America. They warn the newly passed farm bill continues to subsidize large corporate food makers while other voices, such as first lady Michelle Obama, work piecemeal to promote healthy food choices.

“It doesn’t make sense to tell people to eat vegetables and then produce junk; that leads only to bad health in the face of evident abundance,” Mark Bittman, food columnist for the New York Times, argued in a recent column.

The U.S. is clearly a long way from implementing national food policy that counters the impulses of junk food, but it will have a ringside view of how such policies could work as countries to the south implement far reaching reform.

Credit: The Guardian,; Photo credit: Mexico recently surpassed the U.S. as the world’s “fatest” country; the Mexican government blames it on U.S. fast food and has ordered changes to school lunch programs.


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