Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

HEALTH-LATIN AMERICA: Limiting the Junk Food Banquet

Diego Cevallos* - IPS/IFEJ

MEXICO CITY, Apr 24 2007 (IPS) - Amidst a little pushing and shoving, dozens of girls and boys order fried potatoes, soft drinks, hotdogs and candy at the shop in a private school in Mexico. Similar scenes can be found across Latin America, where junk food sales are strong.

Junk food reigns at snack time. Credit: Photo Stock

Junk food reigns at snack time. Credit: Photo Stock

But gradually, in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Panama and Mexico, legislative bills or initiatives of governments, cities and parents’ associations are making inroads in making junk food a little harder for children to get their hands on.

In the same school where the children can buy foods rich in fats and sugar, and poor in nutrients, also for sale are fruits and vegetables. But almost nobody orders those.

This reporter followed the programming on two Mexican television channels between 2:00pm and 6:00pm and found that in more than 100 advertisements shown by each station at least half were for junk food.

In the United States, ads for candy, hamburgers, sugary breakfast cereals and the like, represent 34 percent of all commercials that children and adolescents see on TV, according to a study sponsored by the U.S.-based Kaiser Family Foundation.

The World Health Organisation says this type of food contributes to the problem of obesity, which affects more than 20 percent of people over age five in the region.

And, according to WHO, the leading risk factors for non-contagious diseases – responsible for 60 percent of the 56 million deaths worldwide each year – are lack of consumption of fruits and vegetables, excess weight and obesity, lack of physical activity and tobacco use.

The U.S. American Heart Association says that Latin America stands out from other regions for having the highest proportion of heart attack risks as a result of high blood pressure, excess abdominal fat and permanent stress.

Brazil’s National Health Monitoring Agency in November launched a public debate on regulations that would ban radio and TV advertising for soft drinks and foods with high content of sugar, saturated fat or salt. The government is expected to issue a decree on such measures in late June.

Regulating advertising “is interesting”, because it affects “innocent consumers” like children, and is an essential measure for containing the problem of childhood obesity, says Mariana del Bosco Rodrigues, a nutritionist with the Brazilian Association for the Study of Obesity.

Some city governments have banned sales of candy near or inside schools. Others have improved what is offered at school snack time, such as fruit, vegetables and natural juices, she said in an interview.

Murilo Diversi, a food expert at IDEC, the Brazilian consumer defence institute, said that, luckily for his country, junk food advertising can be regulated by decree.

Between the periods 1974-75 and 2002-03, the proportion of Brazilian males between ages 10 and 19 who were overweight increased from 3.9 percent to 17.9 percent, while for females in the same age group it rose from 7.5 percent to 15.4 percent.

In Mexico, obesity among children aged five to 11 jumped 40 percent between 1999 and 2006. In that same period, the waistlines of women of childbearing age increased an average of 10 cm. Furthermore, 10 percent of Mexican adults are diabetic, and 30 percent of children have hypertension, according to official figures.

“The obesity epidemic is out of control. One of the most important causes is the change in eating habits and the lack of regulation of junk food advertising,” says Alejandro Calvillo, director of the Mexican non-governmental organisation El Poder del Consumidor (Power of the Consumer), interviewed for this article.

According to the government’s National Institute of Public Health, in the last 14 years the consumption of soft drinks increased 60 percent in Mexico, the world’s second leading market for such beverages, after the United States.

Mexico’s indigenous families, which tend to be the poorest, spend an average of two dollars per week on soft drinks and less than one dollar on milk, says the state-run Integral Family Development agency.

Despite pressure from ConMéxico, an association of the leading manufacturers of junk food, national lawmakers have been studying since 2006 a bill for restricting junk food ads. There is also a bill for labelling such products with warnings about their lack of nutritional value.

But the bills have run into some legislative roadblocks, and some lawmakers have reported meddling and even threats from manufacturers.

Upholding the discourse of snack food and beverage manufacturers in other countries, Ignacio Lastra, spokesman of the Mexican National Chamber of Industry, declared that a law will not resolve the obesity problem.

Lastra believes that families should instruct their children about adequate nutrition.

In the WHO’s “Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health”, governments are urged to create new taxes to discourage manufacturing food with little nutritional value and to limit advertising for such food that is aimed at children.

Doctor Mercedes Schnell, of the Venezuelan non-governmental Bengoa Foundation for Food and Nutrition, believes that banning junk food and related advertising is no guarantee of success.

It is best to educate the consumers, she said in an interview.

But, like most experts, she recognises that “poor nutrition and excess weight and obesity among children is increased by the greater availability of fast food, outside the home, full of saturated fats and sugars and low in dietary fibre.”

Though for now there aren’t any laws being considered for junk food sales or advertising, school officials have banned consumption in many schools in Venezuela.

Local governments and family associations in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico decided not to wait for national regulations and have designed their own programmes for limiting the availability of junk food in and around schools.

In Chile, senators of the co-governing Party for Democracy are considering a bill to regulate the manufacture of low-nutrition foods and restrict its sale in and near schools.

Since 1997, a ban has been in effect in Panama on the distribution of fried foods and soft drinks in schools. But officials there admit it is difficult to enforce it.

Proper food choice, along with public policies in education, health, sports and advertising, could reverse the trend towards obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, says Bosco Rodrigues.

(*Reporting contributed by Mario Osava in Brazil and Humberto Márquez in Venezuela. This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service – and IFEJ, the International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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