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Food labeling in Latin America and the Caribbean: interventionism or a necessary fight against malnutrition?

The arrival of new, more aggressive nutritional information policies marks a turning point the degree of intervention of many countries in the nutrition of their citizens. Multiple Latin American and Caribbean countries, which are experiencing an alarming increase in the percentage of the population that is overweight, are joining the trend.

Sign for food labeling during a protest in Chile (CC BY-ND 2.0)

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are approximately 1.900 billion overweight adults in the world, 600 million of whom are obese. The adoption of unhealthy food habits in many countries stands in sharp contrast to the reality of 815 million people suffering from hunger, and a society that alarmingly accepts aesthetic canons that do not respect the general health or diet of the population. For whatever reason, the current nutritional debate seems to focus more on what leads us to include or discard products from our shopping cart – the factors behind our food choices. Factors that have the power to influence our, often unhealthy, consumption habits

We know that, at least in terms of processed products, labeling is a key factor in influencing consumers to make healthier choices. Nevertheless, their effectiveness is by no means guaranteed. On the one hand, there is the circumstantial question of whether consumers have the time and patience to read the information presented in the nutritional table, while on the other, there is a social reality at play: the consumer’s ability to understand the information at their disposition. If a consumer does not in fact read or understand this information, it is highly unlikely that a product’s nutritional value would prevail over a consumer’s habits, preferences or appetite when it comes down to making food choices.

Simplifying in order to reach more consumers

Most experts agree that the nutritional information section on food labels, despite its invaluable importance, is the most complex part for consumers to process. In light of this difficulty, the effectiveness of the presentation of the information nutritional on food packaging has been put into question in recent years, and various initiatives have been launched attempting to improve it.

In 2013, the United Kingdom gave the green light to innovative regulations for labeling processed foods. The new system involved the depiction of a color-coded traffic light based on the product’s nutritional content, focusing on high levels of sugar, fat and sodium content. According to this method, red represents a high content of unhealthy ingredients, while yellow stands for medium, and green means low. Therefore, the greener the label, the healthier the product. Although this was a considerable simplification over the standard nutritional table, the presentation of the information was easier to understand and faster for consumers to process. Undeniably, for the first time, an increased percentage of the population could, intuitively and non-textually, have a better understanding of the nutritional value of food products prior to purchasing them. The goal of getting the message across had been achieved.

The case of Latin America and the Caribbean

The FAO’s latest report on the State of Food and Nutrition Security in the World leaves no room for doubt – the Latin America and Caribbean region is suffering from a growing epidemic of an overweight and obese population, in stark contrast to the growing rate of hunger. This may explain why the LAC region has taken up the food labeling debate on its own terrain, with Ecuador and Peru adopting similar nutritional warning systems to that of the United Kingdom. Just a year after implementing the nutritional traffic light, Ecuador reported a 35% decrease in the sale of products high in saturated fats, sugar and/or sodium. Mexico, on the other hand, implemented a frontal labeling system in 2015 and also regulated the permissible commercial content for these products, as well as the times they are allowed to be aired. It is within this context that the case of Chile came to light, thanks to a decree issued in 2015 modifying the Food Nutritional Composition and Advertising Law.

According to the modified law, Chilean regulations require labels to have black octagonal warning stickers for products with high levels of sugar, saturated fat, sodium, or calories, similar to the Peruvian system. Once the law entered into effect, it was further prohibited to include toys along with products that are considered to be unhealthy, such as children’s meals at major fast food chains, sugary cereals, potato chips, and chocolate eggs for children. Manuel Alonso Dos Santos, a researcher from Universidad Católica de la Santísima Concepción in Chile, concludes that the Chilean labeling system is pioneer in its field, as it is stricter than its predecessors in the United Kingdom and Ecuador. “The biggest difference lies in the icon itself. Chile uses “stop signs” in black and white (in order to avoid attracting the attention of minors). But perhaps the greatest difference of the Chilean labels is that they focus on the negative ingredients to be avoided, highlighting the food product’s negative qualities over the positive.” 

A recent study[1] co-authored by Alonso Dos Santos confirms that it would be advisable to apply the Chilean model to the rest of Latin America based on its high degree of effectiveness in capturing consumers’ attention. According to the researcher, “it is recommendable for other Latin American countries like Argentina and Uruguay, which have extremely concerning rates of overweight population, to implement similar measures,” considering that the new labeling system has a clear influence on consumers’ food choices. 

An open debate

The degree of simplification involved in this new method also entails risks associated with foods that may offer some health benefits when consumed in moderation. Edmundo Rodríguez, a specialist in nutrition and diet from the Universidad del Pacífico, points out that the new labeling system could be confusing for consumers since not all of the foods marked with warning labels are necessarily harmful to your health. “There are certain food products that could be marked with black labels even though they may actually be beneficial for consumption. For example, unsalted nuts, such as peanuts, despite being a good source of fatty acids that are beneficial for the body, would be classified as ‘high in calories,’ even though consuming a handful of this food per day is tremendously beneficial for your health.” Clearly the warning labels cannot be taken as a substitute for the product’s complete nutritional information table, and it’s still up to consumers to be well-informed about the products they consume and make appropriate decisions for themselves.

Foto de J.L.Urrea (CCAFS) (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

There’s a lot to be said about the usefulness of this system, as well as its many implications for the food industry. Using the same method as the one used to classify movies based on their content, for example, it would seem logical that the primary consequences would be the same as in the film industry, where many producers censor their films in order to ensure that they are apt for a general audience. Are we to assume that the time has come to impose on the entire population a diet “for a general audience”? To what extent is this debate actually driven by the need to protect our food systems, or are we entering the territory of discrediting and paternalistic systems?

Along these lines, Alonso Dos Santos concludes that there are clear reasons for implementing this type of system on a larger scale: “There are multiple studies that have demonstrated a high correlation between low levels of education and income and a high level of consumption of unhealthy foods. The system does not prohibit consumers from purchasing these products, but the idea is that its implementation will influence consumers’ preferences to lean towards healthier foods.”


For more information from FAO on food labeling:


[1]Study by the Universidad Católica de la Santísima Concepción pending publication.

Author: Heather Elizabeth Higle and Jordi Vaqué, FAO Investment Centre, Latin America and the Caribbean Division (TCIC)
Photo Credit: Tamara Kramarenco Müller

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