UN links rise in ultra-processed foods in Latin America and Caribbean to worsening health
Food industry can alter food systems for the better, FAO officer says
14 Nov 2019 --- Adult obesity in Latin America and the Caribbean has tripled since 1975, affecting one in four adults, while hunger has also risen, affecting 42.5 million people. This is according to a new UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s report, titled the Panorama of Food and Nutritional Security 2019. In light of the report, FAO and organizations are calling for countries in the region to develop urgent actions to address malnutrition. Speaking to NutritionInsight, Ricardo Rapallo, Food Security Officer at FAO says that the food industry has an essential role to play in transforming current food systems toward healthier and more sustainable ones.
“Industry is the most important player, as it can manage the different elements that constitute current food systems,” Rapallo notes. “Industry can also play a significant role in curbing the problem of overweight and obesity if it decides to be part of the solution. Specifically, this can be done through changing the way it produces and advertises food and beverages. For instance, it can reduce the quantity of sugar, sodium and fats content in the products that they make available to their consumers.”
“Moreover, the food industry can be part of dialogue platforms where the most relevant stakeholders in the food systems (producers, traders, industry, consumers, government, etc.) can discuss transparently, and in a fair manner, alternatives to promote sustainable and healthier food systems,” he adds.
FAO’s call to action is also supported by the Pan American Health Organization / World Health Organization (PAHO / WHO), the UN’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Program (WFP).
The document highlights the need to promote healthier food environments through taxes and incentives that favor healthy food, social protection systems, school feeding programs and the regulation of food advertising and marketing. The agencies also stress the importance of improving food labeling with frontal nutritional warning systems, ensuring the safety and quality of food sold on the street, and reformulating the composition of certain products to ensure their nutritional contribution.
Malnutrition is prevalent in South America
According to the report, the most significant increase in adult obesity in the region was observed in the Caribbean, where the percentage quadrupled, rising from 6 percent in 1975 to 25 percent, an increase in absolute terms from 760,000 to 6.6 million people.
“The explosive increase in obesity, which affects 24 percent of the regional population, almost double the global level of 13.2 percent, not only has huge economic costs but also threatens the lives of hundreds of thousands,” explains Julio Berdegué, FAO’s Regional Representative.
Every year 600,000 people die in Latin America and the Caribbean due to diseases related to poor diets, such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, the report notes. Inadequate diets are associated with more deaths than any other risk factor, something that threatens our future generations since the rates of both childhood and adolescent obesity have tripled between 1990 and 2016.
“We must act now to reverse this trend and prevent children from suffering the consequences of poor diets on their health and their future quality of life,” says PAHO/WHO Director Carissa F. Etienne. “To achieve this, we need the commitment of the whole society and public policies that regulate unhealthy food products, create environments conducive to physical activity and promote healthy eating at school and at the family table.”
The publication highlights that the region is worse than the rest of the world in the majority of malnutrition indicators related to excessive calorie intake: the amount of people diagnosed as overweight has doubled since the 1970s, and today affects 59.5 percent of adults in the region, 262 million people, while globally the rate is 20 percentage points lower at 39.1 percent
In contrast, the region has lower undernourishment rates than the global average (6.5 percent for the region versus 10.8 worldwide), stunting (9 percent versus 21.9), and much lower rates of wasting (1.3 percent, versus 7.3for the world). However, the agencies warn of the worrying increase in hunger, which has grown again by 4.5 million people since 2014 – an increase of 11 percent – reaching 42.5 million in 2018, its highest point of the last decade.
Shifts in regional food environment
The report makes a detailed analysis of how the food environment of the region has changed, understood as the space of interaction between people and the physical, economic, political and socio-cultural conditions that influence the way they acquire, prepare and consume food.
Sales of ultra-processed food products are the fastest growing in Latin America and they increase the population's exposure to excessive amounts of sugar, sodium and fat. Between 2000 and 2013, the consumption of ultra-processed products grew by more than 25 percent, and fast food consumption grew almost 40 percent.
“In Latin America and the Caribbean, too many children eat too little healthy food and too much processed food,” says Bernt Aasen, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Almost one in five children under five years of age are malnourished or overweight, which prevents them from growing well. It is everyone's task to ensure healthy food is available and affordable for all families, especially the most vulnerable.”
According to Rapallo, cheap and fast food is not a problem per se. However, these kinds of products contain high levels of sugar, salts or fats and calories and low nutrients. These foods are usually more readily available and cheaper which can lead low-income families to opt for them.
The expansion of supermarket chains and the preponderance of large food processing industries is another major change in the regional food environment, one which has made ultra-processed products available everywhere, and at lower prices than nutritious food.
The region has reacted to the rise in malnutrition through a series of public policies. Countries such as Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay have implemented food labeling laws, which allow consumers to make better decisions. Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Panama and Uruguay have improved regulation on food advertising, and at least 13 countries in the region have adopted fiscal and social measures that seek to favor adequate food.
By Kristiana Lalou
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