Nutrition label use in Latin America

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Mónica Mazariegos

Mónica Mazariegos

Monica Mazariegos is a public health nutritionist. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in population nutrition at the National Institute of Public Health of Mexico. Her research interests focus on nutrition-related chronic diseases; maternal-child public health nutrition; reproductive characteristics, pregnancy and lactation.
Mónica Mazariegos

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Imagine you live in a rural village in Latin America, and you have the choice to buy either an egg or potato chips to complement your meal.

An egg will cost you about $0.15. A bag of potato chips will cost a little more, about $0.20. You choose the potato chips. Why? Because you can’t read the nutrition facts on back of bag of chips that display the dangerously high fat and salt content. You also don’t know that the egg is full of protein and vitamins that will keep you full and give you energy. You choose what tastes best and is easiest to eat: the potato chips.

This is a daily struggle for much of the world, and its making us unhealthy.

In Latin America, overweight and obesity have reached alarming rates and are considered public health priorities. The most recent report from PAHO/FAO documented that almost half the population of all Latin America and the Caribbean is overweight, except for Haiti, Paraguay and Nicaragua, which are nonetheless not much healthier. In response to this epidemic, many Latin American countries have adopted policies to make healthy choices easier. For example, Chile, Ecuador and Mexico have recently implemented the mandatory use of front-of-package nutrition labeling systems. However, in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, only pre-packaged food products require basic nutritional fact information, but contain no simple easy-to-use nutrition label use. Many countries in Latin America have no system for nutrition labelling.

Recently, evidence published regarding the use of nutrition labels in Latin American countries has drawn attention to several barriers that prevent nutrition labeling systems from helping consumers make healthier eating choices, despite large variances in the policies and systems of nutrition labeling between countries (e.g. warning labels, traffic-light system, guideline daily amounts, and nutrient lists). For example, Guatemala, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica and Ecuador have consistently reported that difficulty understanding nutrition labeling and lack of time at point-of-sale are the main barriers to label use. Understanding and use of nutrition labels are most limited among those of low socio-economic status, lower educational level, and indigenous populations. Since these groups are the most at risk for malnutrition in all its forms—including obesity, anemia, and short stature— its associated chronic diseases, and the economic consequences of poor health, this new evidence is especially worrisome.

In all of the studied populations in Latin America, taste and price are the most important factors in deciding whether or not to purchase a food. This means that we need nutrition labels that consider the low literacy rates and the limited health literacy skills that prevail among the most vulnerable citizens of our countries. We must demand that nutrition labels provide everyone with the ability to quickly determine if a food is a nutritious choice, that allow comparison of foods within a category, and that determine if the food meets personal nutrient needs.

The existing literature has only described the awareness and use of nutritional labels. In our region, it is a public health priority to evaluate the impact of different systems of nutrition labeling not only on encouraging people to make healthier dietary choices at the point-of-purchase, but also on promoting reformulation of food products to know which is the best system of nutrition labeling to inform consumers and promote the availability of foods of higher nutritional value. Also, we need to ask governments of countries that until now have not implemented any policy about labelling (e.g. Belize, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Panama) to consider their implementation and potential long-term health benefits. And finally, as we recommended in our recent article, other straightforward, easy-to-use strategies to communicate nutrition information at the point-of-sale should be top priorities. We need to make it easy to choose healthier options.