Maverick Citizen

Food Justice

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

UN Food Systems Summit should provide an opportunity to strengthen policy interventions on ultra-processed foods that cause disease

UN Food Systems Summit should provide an opportunity to strengthen policy interventions on ultra-processed foods that cause disease
Changing diets have fuelled significant increases in diet-related non-communicable diseases. (Photo: Gallo Images/Misha Jordaan)

For the first time, governments are convening around the issue of food as part of the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. This is rightfully happening against the backdrop of a global pandemic, which accentuated the vulnerability of immunocompromised populations and weak global health systems.

Camila Corvalán is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Nutrition and Food Technology (INTA) at the University of Chile. She also serves as Director of the Research Center on Food Environment and Prevention of Chronic Diseases (CIAPEC) at INTA, University of Chile. 

In the last decades, changing diets have fuelled significant increases in diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as overweight, obesity, type 2 diabetes and hypertension. The summit gives us all the opportunity to discuss what policy interventions are required to reduce ultra-processed food distribution and consumption, while simultaneously making fresh or minimally processed foods more available, accessible and affordable. 

South Africa has already provided the rest of the world with evidence of the impact of a sugar-sweetened beverage tax. (Photo: Moyan Brenn via Flickr)

This is a global challenge; however, it is particularly urgent in low middle-income countries that do not have the capacity to cope with an obesity and NCDs epidemic on top of existing health and economic problems. My country, Chile, has made great strides in passing progressive policies that create healthier food environments. South Africa is on the same path. However, more efforts are necessary. We have a unique opportunity to share South-South lessons learnt as we push for systems change at government level.

This week, I was invited to share the Chilean experience at the South African Association for Food Science and Technology conference. When preparing for the meeting I was surprised to find how South Africa and Chile share several similarities in terms of the obesity burden and in the uncontrolled increased consumption of ultra-processed foods during the last decades. In layman’s terms, ultra-processed foods are foods prepared with ingredients you would not find in your kitchen, with high content of sugars, sodium and unhealthy fats. They are the foods we tend to binge-eat, such as potato chips, fizzy drinks and packaged cookies we see daily in stores. 

In 2014, Chile had the highest per capita consumption of sugary drinks in the world and faced skyrocketing obesity rates. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Narong Sangnak)

In 2014, Chile had the highest per capita consumption of sugary drinks in the world and faced skyrocketing obesity rates. Half of the Chilean adult population and 50% of Chilean children at school entry were overweight or obese. For this reason, the government passed the 2016 Chile Food Marketing and Labeling Law. This landmark law is a package of policies that includes front-of-package warning labels on unhealthy food, regulations on child-targeted marketing of foods and beverages, and a ban on the sale of unhealthy foods and beverages in schools. 

Our latest research measuring the impact of the Chilean law has demonstrated that it’s effectively creating a healthier food environment. Since the law was implemented in 2016 we have seen a reduction in marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children, healthier daycare and school environments and a change in behaviour where children are pressuring their parents to buy healthier food and drinks; all together this has resulted in a decrease in the consumption of unhealthy food and drinks and a shift towards products with less sugar, sodium and fats. Most importantly, this has happened without negatively affecting our economy. 

South Africa has already provided the rest of the world with evidence of the impact of a sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) tax that, although at a lower rate than originally planned, was able to reduce SSB consumption, particularly among those who needed it most – lower socioeconomic groups and in sub-populations with higher SSB consumption. 

Through its tax, South Africa has been able to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. (Photo: ebony.com/Wikipedia)

At the conference I was thrilled to know that there is also active discussion to implement a mandatory front-of-package labelling system (like the one in Chile) together with marketing restrictions of unhealthy food products to children. I celebrate all the excellent research that is informing the process to make policies relevant for the South African context. 

Last April, I joined other researchers from around the globe, including South Africa, expressing our concern about the impact of consuming ultra-processed food and drinks on weight gain and increase of diet-related NCDs globally. I firmly believe that rigorous and unbiased evidence will help us define a package of healthy food policies to hopefully counteract this trend. The experience of this week makes me optimistic that some of that evidence will come from the Global South, where in fact, it is most needed. 

Let us also be optimistic that one of the outcomes of the 2021 UN Food System Summit will be a wake-up call for governments to consider evidence-based policies to decrease the consumption of these products and to create healthier food environments for all. DM/MC

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