In the last five years I have traveled around Latin America to investigate what we are eating and why. The problem I found is that traditional food - homemade dishes made with fresh ingredients - is being displaced by ultra-processed edibles that deliberately hide information; products that in the best of cases do not feed and, in the worst, make sick.
In our region we face a serious health crisis derived from this transformation that has been driven, to a large extent, by the food and soft drink industry. These are a handful of companies that, while expanding their markets, have been exerting enormous influence on local governments to stop regulations that seek to warn us about what we eat.
But the regulations are urgent: nearly two million Latin Americans die each year from diet-related diseases. Just one example: the average sugar consumption in Latin America is more than five times above the healthy limit (which is approximately six tablespoons a day for adults) recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) and is one of the factors that influence hypertension, which causes 800,000 deaths a year, and type 2 diabetes, which affects around 25 million Latin Americans and costs health systems a total of 65 million dollars a year.
In this context, obtaining accurate information is key to controlling what we eat and making healthier choices.
But this is not what is currently the case in most supermarkets in the region. Cookies, juices, sodas, yogurts,Nuggetsthey are displayed on the shelves with packaging that leads us to confuse advertising with information. We choose, shop, and eat guided by what's featured up front: the vitamins the products claim to have, the engaging messages, and the characters our kids love. The information, meanwhile, is encrypted in tiny labels that hardly anyone knows quite how to read.
On the back of the wrapper of the Gansito de Bimbo cake you can read among its ingredients: “sugar, reconstituted milk, wheat flour, vegetable fat, chocolate flavored granules (seven percent), (sugar, cocoa fat and oil vegetable, invert sugar, dextrose, maltose, acacia, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, iodized salt, cinnamon, soy lecithin) […] ”, and so on until completing fifty ingredients that end with the legend:“ You can contain yellow 5 ”.
If the labels were clear and were affixed to the front of the products, we would discover that the pantry at home, the children's lunch boxes and our bodies end up daily filled with excessive ingredients and chemical additives that exacerbate the obesity epidemic in the region. That is why Latin Americans must fight one of the most important battles for our health: demand that our congresses legislate on the labeling of edible products. It is an issue that must be treated as a public health priority.
That there is no important and clear information in front of these food products is no accident. Behind the labels is a murky history where the interests of corporations embrace those of legislators who postpone or twist laws in much of Latin America.
But not in Chile. And so we must follow their example.
In 2016, a parliamentary alliance of scientists and activists succeeded after a decade of failed attempts to regulate junk food. In that year, the Law on Food Labeling was approved, which consists, among other measures, in applying black seals - octagons that emulate traffic stop signs - to warn about the high caloric content or saturated fat or sugar or salts added. The law was accompanied by restrictions on advertising and mandatory redesign of the packaging of unhealthy groceries. The purpose? Make them less attractive to children.
It was a paradigmatic legislation that faced the fierce opposition of a millionaire industry. Four years later, these stamps have become a consumer guide and have begun to change the Chilean food culture. Studies from that country show that almost 80 percent of consumers are affected by their purchase decision when groceries have stamps. And it also caused 20 percent of the products sold in Chile to be reformulated with fewer substances with harmful effects on health. For example, Nestlé decreased the amount of sugar in its Milo formula, and Coca-Cola did the same with some of its soft drinks.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the WHO office for the Americas, has recommended that the rest of the countries of the continent adopt the Chilean warning system. Some have followed that path. This week it entered into force in Peru and in 2020 it will do so in Uruguay. And the obvious thing would be for one country after another to make the same determination, in a domino that brings down the chain of non-communicable diseases (responsible for 5.2 million deaths in Latin America). Unfortunately, there are no signs of it happening.
The food industry is unwilling to continue risking their business and they fight their battles. Argentina, Colombia and Mexico have similar scenarios. Through lobbying strategies, brands have successfully convinced politicians and legislators not to change labeling regulations or to incorporate less clear labeling.
This is what happens in Mexico with the current nutritional labeling, the GDA: an interpretive label, almost invisible, imposed despite the fact that all the studies before and after its approval showed that it was difficult to understand, even for nutrition students. "With this labeling, a consumer can believe that eating two apples is the same as drinking a soft drink because the added sugar and the intrinsic sugar of the food are shown the same," Alejandro Calvillo, director of El Poder del Consumidor, said in different statements to the press. a civil association dedicated to defending consumer rights in Mexico. And he repeated the example at the beginning of May of this year, when the organization lost the protection it had filed in defense of access to information.
In Colombia, the initiative to warn consumers about what to buy does not seem to be prospering either. The bill that some congressmen and civil society tried to advance in 2017 and that proposed to apply the Chilean labeling in that country went through two legislative sessions in 2018 in which instead of approving it they dedicated themselves to transforming the proposal of black stamps into the GDA. Civil society immediately presented another project with the previous proposal. It was due to be debated this week, but after delaying the session, the congressmen shelved the case.
In Argentina, the Ministry of Health was publicly inclined to adopt a warning label like the Chilean one, but the Ministry of Agroindustry was in favor of a color GDA system. Forced by the government to reach an agreement, last month, Health Secretary Adolfo Rubinstein slipped the press that a hybrid model will probably be advanced. This week, in a meeting with representatives of civil society, the technical team of the Ministry of Health ratified this possibility: the model that is being evaluated is a GDA to which red marks would be added to indicate that there are excessive ingredients.
The arguments that are often used to prevent the application of black stamps range from a possible loss of jobs that would cause a decrease in the consumption of groceries, to the complications of changing packaging for exports. They are conclusions without evidence, but effectively manipulated by lobbyists and representatives of business chambers who seek to establish an anachronistic and ineffective labeling such as the GDA in all its versions. And they are succeeding.
In the midst of these tugs of conflicts of interest we, the consumers, have adopted a food culture distorted by edible products good to sell and bad to eat. There is so much to do. But the first decisive step will be to distinguish what hurts us in a clear and truthful way, with a simple labeling, like that of the black stamps of Chile. Information is a right and we must exercise it in order to claim what comes next: adequate food.
“Here there is a war”, the researcher from the University of São Paulo Carlos Monteiro told me: “On one side is the industry that offers food substitutes and on the other there is a movement in defense of real food”. This is one of the vital crusades of our time.
Soledad Barruti is a journalist focused on issues related to food and the food industry. She is the author of "Malcomidos, how the Argentine food industry is killing us" and "Bad milk. Why ultra-processed food makes us sick from childhood ”.