High blood pressure, high fasting plasma glucose, and overweight and obesity are key drivers of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that are a leading cause of mortality, morbidity and disability in the country. The four leading NCDs (cancer, heart disease, diabetes and lung disease) account for 7 out of 10 deaths and are a major burden on a health system that struggles to adequately treat and care for the increasing number of those in need.
Caribbean nations lost four million years of healthy life due to these risk factors in 2017. These years of life were lost because persons died prematurely or lived with disabilities that precluded them from study, work, play, or enjoying their lives at their best potential. These losses have impacted not only health but also human and socioeconomic development in the region, as they have negatively impacted educational attainment and labour productivity.
Prevention better than cure
Unhealthy eating is one of the main modifiable risk factors for NCDs. Healthier choices by consumers would result in a decrease in nutrition related diseases and a reduction in healthcare costs and can therefore benefit the economy as a whole. However, research highlights that consumers spend little time in making a purchase decision and their major goal, especially in repetitive decisions, is to make a satisfactory choice while minimizing mental effort.
A proven strategy to increase dietary knowledge and awareness of unhealthy food products is the introduction of simple, graphic front of packaging labelling (FOPL) for all processed and packaged food.
The simple but effective tool utilizes laws and regulations to reduce the demand for, and offer of, processed and ultra-processed products that are high in sugar, fats and sodium. FOPL provides the tools necessary for customers to make an informed choice, one that research shows leads to a positive effect on healthy decision making.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Jamaica country office has been supporting research to evaluate the efficacy of different FOPL schemes for application to product packages in Jamaica. The revised CARICOM standard for labelling of packaged foods, which will soon be implemented across the region, will include a standard for FOPL.
The results of this research will guide the identification and development of a FOPL scheme that is suitable for use by Jamaican consumers.
“The front of packaging labelling system should allow consumers to correctly, quickly and easily identify products that contain excessive amount of free sugars, sodium, total fats, saturated fats, and/or trans fats,” explained Dr Audrey Morris, PAHO’s Regional Advisor on Food and Nutrition. “There are various front of packaging labelling systems used by other countries. However, finding the most appropriate and effective system for Jamaica will be essential.”
PAHO is supporting the appropriate research to be carried out by the University of Technology Jamaica, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW). The research will identify the most appropriate labelling system for the Jamaican population that will also be simple and easy to follow, enabling consumers to make an informed decision that will affected their health wellbeing.