Chile: Our Labeling Law Is a Model but We Need to Go Further

High in sugars. High in saturated fats. High in sodium. High in calories.

By Guido Girardi (El Mostrador)

HAVANA TIMES – For Chile to advance towards better health and less obesity, more accountability is needed over the enforcement of existing rules. We also need to do more: establish a “green” card that would allow Chile’s vulnerable populations access to healthy food;  increase physical activity as a requirement in our schools; and raise taxes on harmful products that bear the warning labels.

The greatest pandemic humanity is facing isn’t Covid, it’s obesity. That condition kills around 41 million people annually – 112,000 people a day – through cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and dementia. Forty thousand of those cases are completely avoidable, since they involve young people. In contrast, Covid caused a total of 8 million deaths over a two-year period.  In addition, obesity causes years lost in terms of healthy lives, increases the need for hospital beds, and results in greater public health expenses.

Chile, has passed a nutritional labeling law that has become a world model for confronting this pandemic. However, it’s not enough.

Why, then, isn’t obesity addressed with as much or more determination than the crisis generated by Covid? The answer is not only because it’s a silent pandemic, but also because it’s tied to multiple businesses with powerful lobbyists, such as the food and pharmaceutical industries.

Still, a number of measures are pending, which could make Chile even more of a standout and a model for the world, as the flagship of this struggle for future health.

In order to advance towards better health and less obesity, better accountability is needed of the industry’s compliance with the norms. Another idea is a “green” card that would allow the vulnerable population access to healthy food. We also need to increase the requirements for physical activity in the schools and raise taxes on harmful products, with special seals.

The Chilean law for prominent labels has been recognized on a world level as a model of innovation in fighting this pandemic. A recent study from the University of California in Berkely concludes that in the first three years of full implementation, the National Food Labeling Law changed consumer habits, effecting a 9% and 7% drop in the purchase of sugars and calories respectively.

The US report notes that before buying, consumers consider the prominent Health Ministry stickers declaring the food “high in calories”, high in sugar”, “high in sodium”, or “high in saturated fats”.  They opt for products that don’t have these seals, since they’re now aware that no sticker means they’re healthier. The companies, in turn, have reduced these harmful ingredients in order to avoid the labels.

Products not flagged showed a 5.5% increase in price, due to greater demand and the cost of reformulating the products. Hence, the seals proved an incentive to the industry. Over 20% of the food products considered junk have been reformulated, lowering their levels of salt, sugar and fats to eliminate having to bear stickers. Today very few dairy products with the warning label can be seen, since processors lowered the levels of sugar and salt in order to get positive publicity and be able to market in the schools.

The Food Labeling Law establishes the right to know: even a six-year-old can identify through the stickers on the front of the product if the level of sodium, fat, calories or sugars exceeds heathy standards. For a long time, parents offered dry cereals to their children, thinking they were healthy, without knowing that every 100 grams of product contained up to 50% sugar and as much as 800 milligrams of salt – a metabolic bomb that could cause lifelong harm to those that consume it.

I presented this bill in 2007, together with Dr. Ricardo Uauy. The Food Labeling Law that resulted was approved in 2011, but due to lobbying from a part of the industry, it couldn’t be totally implemented until 2019. It’s now been in force for a little over three years and has had strong international impact. It received awards from the UN and the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Health Organization proposed it as a model to be followed worldwide. The idea has been exported to Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, and Mexico, all of which passed laws identical to ours. The norms adopted by Israel and Canada were also inspired by this law. A total of 32 countries has either approved or analyzed the measure.

Previously, the food labels were designed so as not to be easily understood, giving companies free rein to sell junk disguised as healthy food. The stickers are now easily understood by anyone over 6 years old. Also, by restricting the advertising generated by “neuromarketing experts” to encourage consumption of unhealthy foods, obesity’s mechanism for contagion has been cut off, similar to the use of masks to stop the spread of Covid.

Not yet enough

This law has had a clearly positive impact; however, in itself, it hasn’t been enough to slow this pandemic. Chile is one of the countries most affected by obesity: 37.5% of the population in obese and 75% are overweight. Nearly 90% of the population lead sedentary lives, and 26% of children are obese by the time they’re six.  Below are some other ideas that should be implemented.

Taxes: If we wish to continue putting the brakes on the obesity curve and its disastrous health consequences, it’s essential that we raise the taxes on food with the labels. According to a study commissioned by the Finance Ministry, such an action could diminish diabetes by 63%, high blood pressure by 57%, strokes by 43% and heart attacks by 22%.

Other studies indicated that over a billion dollars could be saved annually, in the costs that Chilean society pays for these diseases through the public and private heath systems. Meanwhile, the taxes could bring in US $500 million dollars.

“Green” cards: One of the causes of the severe public health crisis of obesity and the tremendous burden of the disease among the most vulnerable households is that only 20% of the population consumes the 5 portions of fruits and vegetables recommended by the World Health Organization.  

The resources collected through taxes on harmful food products could be invested in healthy measures such as a green card to subsidize the purchase of fruits and vegetables at farmer’s markets and grocery stores. That, in turn, would spark a chain of production involving the rural family farms.

This measure should be a priority – as much for its positive impact on the health of the poorest as for the immense savings to the country in illness-caused expenses.

Accountability and enforcement: Part of the food industry continues resisting these norms. Accountability should be increased, because some importers of US products still sell junk food marked with the stickers, but also with cartoons that the law forbids.

Also, there’s still the paradox that pizzas and hamburgers, the poster children of junk food, have no stickers on their packaging, even though the law requires them. They’re able to evade compliance because the regulations for the law haven’t been implemented.

Regulation of personalized advertising: Advertising of harmful products is one factor in the chain of transmission of obesity, and Chilean children spend over 6 hours a day in front of screens. They’re exposed to ever greater levels of personalized and invasive advertising, which up until now hasn’t been addressed.

Effectively encourage physical activity: The digital age has resolved many problems in a positive way, but it has also led to sedentary lifestyles. Further, it reduces the need to make decisions, since everything is just a click away. Screens have replaced games and even social activity among children, who engage in ever less physical activity.

That makes it necessary for the government to act urgently on the law that changes school uniforms for athletic wear and requires one hour daily of physical activity in the schools. This liberates endorphins, the hormone that gives a feeling of well-being, and is a protective factor that blocks the need for alcohol and other drugs, lessens anxiety and violence, improves intellectual capacity and school achievement, all in addition to reducing obesity.

If these challenges are addressed, Chile can continue being a world reference in the creation of laws aimed at protecting health, thus also contributing to a better global future.

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