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The Need to Reduce Ultra-Processed Food Consumption Worldwide

Leading food and nutrition researchers from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health, University of Chile, South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand and University of Western Cape and Brazil’s University of Sao Paolo issued a call to action for the need for evidence-based healthy food policies to combat the alarming increases in obesity and diet-related diseases across the globe. The new paper, “Towards unified and impactful policies to reduce ultra-processed food consumption and promote healthier eating,” recently published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, cites that the need for implementation of healthy food policies is now more important than ever.

Among the chief concerns stated in the article is the impact of consuming ultra-processed food and drink on weight gain and subsequently, the increase of diet related NCDs. In the article, the authors present landmark policies that have had a positive impact on population health. These include Chile’s package of policies including marketing and front of package labeling, Brazil’s school feeding program, and South Africa and Mexico’s sugar sweetened beverage (SSB) taxes. In addition, these policies have had little to no negative economic impact, despite industry claims.

Here are some key policy wins and case studies that the paper showcases from our Food Policy Program partners:

Chile:

  • Implemented a mutually reinforcing package of policies including a front of pack warning label on food and drinks, a school marketing ban and marketing controls on products that are “high-in” nutrients of concern (sugar, sodium, fats).
  • The FOPL has been associated with a 24% drop in SSB purchases in Chile the year following implementation.
  • Analyses show that the implementation of these policies did not have a negative impact on employment and wages in food and beverage adjacent sectors.
  • Marketing and advertising of ultra-processed products significantly decreased, with a 44% decrease in exposure for children and 58% for adolescents within the first year.

Mexico:

  • Implemented an SSB tax in 2014, with purchases decreasing by an average of 6%.
  • The purchase of non-taxed beverages, such as water bottles, increased by an average of 4% following the tax implementation.
  • Evaluation showed that the adoption of the SSB tax had no negative impact on employment.
  • Evaluation is underway on their octagonal FOPL that was implemented in October 2020.
  • At the same time, introduced a nonessential food tax linked with a 5.1% reduction in consumption of these unhealthy foods.
  • Both taxes had a larger impact on reductions in unhealthy foods and SSBs among lower income households who have the highest burden of disease, especially diabetes and other diseases that are untreated.

South Africa:

  • Implemented the Health Promotion Levy (HPL), an SSB tax, in early 2018 based on grams of sugar.
  • Over the first year of implementation, SSB purchases declined by 29% in urban households.
  • Based on public data, there was no significant change in the sugar and beverage industries performance, despite the industry claim SSB taxes would negatively impact their business.

Brazil:

  • Implemented strict guidelines in its school food program that prohibit SSB sales and restrict ultra-processed foods.
  • At least 30% of its food must come from local family farmers, the first program of its kind with a mandatory farm-to-school component.
  • Upcoming regulations which begin in 2023 will require at least 75% of school food funds to be spent on unprocessed or minimally processed foods, with a cap of 20% on processed foods.

Government involvement is also crucial to ensure that industry interference is studied, called out and neutralized when it comes to health policy making. More importantly, the food industry should never be involved in the decision-making process of healthy food policies, as it often is. It is critical that more objective evaluations are conducted without conflict of interest and focus on purchases, consumption and what might change eating norms.

Read the full paper here.