Food Product Warning Labels Are A Cost-Effective Obesity Prevention Strategy, Says New Vital Strategies Report
Protesters outside parliament in Cape Town, South Africa advocating for better food packaging policies

Most shoppers spend less than 10 seconds debating a food choice in the grocery store aisle – and yet choosing processed and low nutrient foods with high levels of sugar, sodium, and fats can lead to chronic diseases, which are expensive to control and often impossible to cure.

Now, national regulatory authorities and food companies can create healthier food environments and combat worrying chronic disease trends through smart, cost-effective and comprehensive obesity prevention policies, based on new guidance from Vital Strategies, a global health NGO.

 “The guide makes available tools to help countries apply an effective and essentially free-to-government behavioral nudge to promote their population’s health,” said Nandita Murukutla, Vice President of Global Policy and Research at Vital Strategies. 

As the coronavirus makes a worrying come-back in Europe and other parts of the world, improving access to safe and nutritious food is more important than ever, given COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on people with preexisting conditions. In one study, obese individuals were almost 50% more likely to die from COVID-19 than people without obesity or chronic diseases. 

According to the WHO, reducing the consumption of micronutrient-poor foods that are highly processed and energy dense is “essential” to tackling obesity, which affects 650 million people worldwide. Unhealthy diets are a key driver of chronic disease, and claim the lives of 11 million people every year, according to recent estimates by The Lancet.

Food Packaging Labels Reduce The Purchase of Nutrient-Poor Products

Explicit “black stop signs” on food packaging are one of the ”most effective” strategies to prevent obesity and other chronic diseases, helping consumers understand the sugar, salt or fat content in the products they buy. They can also reduce long-term purchasing of nutrient-poor products and curb unhealthy consumption behavior, says Vital Strategies.

In 2016, Chile, the world’s leading consumer of sugar-sweetened beverages, was the first to adopt a mandatory national front-of-package labelling system for foods through a comprehensive set of obesity policies (Law of Food Labeling and Advertising).These also included restrictions on child-directed marketing of unhealthy food products, and a ban of unhealthy beverages in schools.

Just 18 months after Chile adopted its Law of Food Labeling and Advertising, sales of sugar- and fat- laden beverages reduced by nearly 25%, according to study from last February. Chile’s success has sparked policymakers to consider similar policies, especially on front-of-package warning-labels, added researchers.

“The best-available evidence suggests that providing clear and informative front-of-packaging nutrient warning labels is one of the most effective approaches to preventing obesity and nutrition-related NCDs [chronic diseases] like diabetes and hypertension,” said Barry Popkin from the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Effective front-of-package policies in Chile reduced unhealthy beverage sales by nearly 25%

Image Credits: Vital Strategies, PLOS.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.