Food Labels Work, So Why Aren’t More Governments Using Them?

Cookies with labels stating their high content in sugar, calories and saturated fat in Santiago, Chile, on June 20, 2016. Image: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty
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Cookies with labels stating their high content in sugar, calories and saturated fat in Santiago, Chile, on June 20, 2016. Image: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty

The average person spends less than 10 seconds reading food labels when they are shopping for groceries, and that is not lost on the food industry.  

By aggressively marketing unhealthy, processed foods, some of the world’s largest food companies have contributed to conditions—such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart disease—that have led to more cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.  

The pandemic has added a new urgency to the need for food policies that encourage consumers to buy healthier and more nutritious products.

The good news is that the very same marketing principles used to promote unhealthy foods, such as claims like “good for your health,” can be applied with counter-marketing labels to discourage their purchase. The most successful model of a country that is making it faster and easier for consumers to identify unhealthy products is Chile, where two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese. Since 2016, the country has put black stop signs on processed food packages to warn consumers about high levels of fat, sugar, salt or calories. The Chilean government has also taken bold steps to restrict marketing of unhealthy food products to kids and banned junk food in schools.

The efforts are changing consumer behavior in a country that once had the highest per capita consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in the world. A study released in February 2020 showed that Chile’s efforts have led to a nearly 24% drop in consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks over 2 years and encouraged purchasing of healthier alternatives. The effect of labeling policies has been markedly greater than the impact of standalone policies—such as taxes on sugary beverages—elsewhere in Latin America. The labels also shifted attitudes and social norms about unhealthy diets: One study found that children started to understand what constituted a healthy diet and were pestering their parents to send them to school with foods that didn’t have stop-sign labels. Another study found that companies reformulated their products and markedly decreased levels of salt and sugar to avoid the labels.

Other countries, mostly in Latin America, are seizing on Chile’s success. Israel, Uruguay and Peru are taking similar actions. Brazil is also considering the introduction of warning labels on packages. Mexico, where three-quarters of adults and 35% of children are overweight or obese, is about to introduce black warning labels on food packaging to complement a tax on sugary drinks enacted in 2013.

As evidence and support for front-of-package warning labels grows, so has resistance from Big Food—which, borrowing from the tobacco and alcohol industries, deploys biased science and false narratives, threatens international litigation, and co-opts policymakers. Systematic analyses have noted the interference of industry in international standard setting bodies like the Codex Alimentarius.

With unhealthy diets responsible for an estimated 11 million preventable deaths each year around the world, we can’t let industry tactics stand in the way. Countries need to know how to fight back. That’s why we developed a new guidebook on how to develop effective front-of-pack warning labels. It draws on success stories from countries like Chile and Mexico, sharing the scientific basis for labels and explaining how to adapt existing labels from other settings, test label designs, and build public support for the effort.

The data show that providing clear and informative front-of-package nutrient warning labels is one of the most effective approaches to preventing obesity and diseases tied to unhealthy nutrition.

Governments should not feel powerless to take on the Big Food industry. The tools are out there—all they need to do is use them. It is incumbent on governments and public health practitioners to respond with decisive action to advance the public’s right to healthy and nutritious food.

 

Nandita Murukutla, PhD, is vice president of Global Policy and Research at Vital Strategies.

Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina.

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