Industrially processed food products, sugary drinks and fast foods are displacing more nutritious traditional diets, with alarming health results. Experts say market regulation is needed to reverse the trend in Latin America and worldwide.
Washington, D.C., 1 September 2015 (PAHO/WHO) — Sales of industrially processed food products—including fast food and sugary beverages—have been rising steadily in Latin America and are fueling increased obesity rates throughout the region, according to a report published this week by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO).
The new report, "Ultra-processed food and drink products in Latin America: Trends, impact on obesity, policy implications," shows that per capita sales of these products increased in Latin America from 2000 to 2013, even as such sales were declining in North America. The increased consumption was strongly correlated with body weight increases, indicating that these products are a major driver of growing rates of overweight and obesity in the region.
"Ultra-processed food products and fast food are occupying a larger and larger share of what people eat and drink in Latin America, with very negative results," said Enrique Jacoby, PAHO/WHO advisor on nutrition and physical activity. "These products are not designed to meet people's nutritional needs. They are engineered to have long shelf lives and to create cravings that can completely overpower people's innate appetite-control mechanisms and their rational desire to stop eating. So they are doubly harmful: they are quasi-addictive and thus increase overweight and obesity, while replacing whole fresh foods that are the foundation of a natural, nutrient-rich human diet."
The report examines sales of products including carbonated soft drinks, sweet and salty snacks, breakfast cereals and bars, candy, ice cream, sports and energy drinks, fruit and vegetable juices, bottled teas and coffee drinks, spreads, sauces and ready-to-eat meals. From 2000 to 2013, per capita sales of these products increased 26.7% in the 13 Latin American countries studied (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela). Sales of the same products declined 9.8% in North America.
Data also show that the increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods strongly correlated with increasing body weight in the 13 Latin American countries. In countries where sales of these products were higher—including Mexico and Chile—people had higher mean body mass. Where sales of these products were lower and traditional diets still prevailed—such as in Bolivia and Peru—mean body mass was lower. Both body mass and sales of ultra-processed products, however, were rapidly rising in all 13 countries studied.
Globalization and market penetration
According to the report, these trends stem from changes in the international food system brought about by globalization and market deregulation, which have increased the penetration of foreign and multinational food corporations into national markets. The report presents data from 74 countries worldwide that show a strong correlation between sales of ultra-processed food products and market deregulation, as indicated by the Index of Economic Freedom.
"Latin America and other developing regions have become attractive markets for industrial food processors, especially as high-income markets become saturated or even begin to reduce consumption of these products," said Jean-Claude Moubarac, a nutrition expert at the University of São Paulo who carried out the PAHO/WHO-commissioned study. "These markets are growing because of population growth, urbanization, and increasing incomes. But countries' trade, regulatory and fiscal policies are equally important. They determine the pricing, availability and affordability of foods. Along with marketing and changing lifestyles, these are the major determinants of what people choose to eat."
Reversing the trend
To slow the rise in consumption of ultra-processed foods and increasing rates of obesity and overweight in Latin America, the report recommends that governments, the scientific community, and civil society organizations support and implement policies to protect and promote healthy food choices. These include information and education campaigns but also regulations on pricing, incentives, agriculture and trade that protect and promote family farming, traditional crops, locally sourced fresh foods in school lunch programs, and domestic food preparation and cooking skills. These measures are in line with PAHO/WHO's 2014 Plan of Action for the Prevention of Obesity in Children and Adolescents, which also calls for strict limits on marketing of unhealthy food products to children.
"It's not too late to change these trends," said Jacoby. "Food cultures based on family meals and unprocessed or minimally processed foods are alive and well in Latin America, but they face a serious threat from aggressive marketing and changing lifestyles. We need educated consumers to create demand for better and healthier food systems, and we need governments to play an active role in creating such systems through regulations and incentives. These actions are critical to reverse the negative impact of globalization on diet and health."
- By volume, sales of ultra-processed food and beverage products increased 48% between 2000 and 2013 in Latin America, compared with 2.3% in North America.
- Per capita fast food purchases increased nearly 40% between 2000 and 2013 in Latin America, based on data from the 13 countries studied. Fast-food purchases increased by 100% or more in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Peru.
- As of 2013, Brazilians and Peruvians were Latin America's biggest consumers of fast food, with 10 times more purchases than Bolivia. (But they still remain far behind Canada and the United States.)
- Latin America is the world's fourth-largest market in per capita sales of ultra-processed food and drink products, after North America, Australasia, and Western Europe.
- In Latin America, per capita sales of ultra-processed products grew fastest in Uruguay (146%), Bolivia (130%) and Peru (107%). Most of the increase was in sales of sugary drinks.
- Total sales of carbonated soft drinks doubled in Latin America between 2000 and 2013, reaching US$ 81 billion and exceeding soft drink sales in North America.
- Canada and the United States rank first and second in annual per capita sales of ultra-processed food and drink products among 80 countries worldwide for which data are available. Mexico ranks fourth, and Chile, seventh.
- In Latin America, two multinational corporations capture two-thirds of all sales of carbonated soft drinks and sweet and savory snacks.
PAHO, founded in 1902, is the oldest international public health organization in the world. It works with its member countries to improve the health and the quality of life of the people of the Americas. It also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of WHO.