A Stop Sign for Obesity?

May 24, 2018 | Food and Nutrition |

The Dirt:

Obesity is a global health challenge that requires action. Recently, Chile has adopted black stop sign labels to caution consumers before purchasing food products that are high in sugar, saturated fat, calories, and/or sodium. Does this type of labeling help prevent obesity?

We know it is important to eat well— but that doesn’t mean we don’t crave foods that aren’t good for us. When you’re hungry, bored, or feeling indulgent it is easy to wolf down the nearest food or treat available, despite the knowledge that it may not be very nutritious.

25% of the world’s population is either overweight or obese— and eating too many empty calories has been a key contributor to this rising epidemic. In fact, the evidence is clear that if we exercised more, ate and drank less, and didn’t smoke, 40% of cancers and 75% of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases would be mitigated.

Obesity is a global health challenge that requires action.

Is Labeling a Solution?

Over the past 10 years, studies have been performed to better understand the effectiveness of labeling for consumers. The results, thus far, have been mixed. Generally speaking, women are more likely than men to read labels. Additionally, consumers who did not exercise but read the labels on their food lost more weight than those who exercised but did not read the labels. Of course, the best health results occur if you check the labels on your food and exercise.

In 2016, the Journal of Public Health published a study that evaluated consumers’ knowledge and perception about food labels.  The study concluded what consumers care most about when purchasing food products is: “the global quality level rather than the nutritional values.” So, while nutritional labeling can be effective, overall it seems that a more aggressive approach is needed.

Traffic Alert! A Black Stop Sign?

Stop signs on these cream filled pastries warn consumers of high saturated fat, high sugar and high calories. A triple warning!

In 2015, alarmed that 67% of their population was either overweight or obese, Chile began to take action. The Chilean government placed a mandate that all food companies put a black stop sign on the labels for food that were in excess of: 275 calories, 400 milligrams of sodium, 10 grams of sugar, and/or 4 grams of saturated fats, per a 100 gram serving size. To put this into perspective, 1 serving of peanut M&M’s has 240 calories, 13g of fat, and 23g of sugar. This qualifies for two black stop signs!! The law also prevents companies from advertising to children those products that exceed the labeling requirements.

Is the labeling program effective? The desired outcome is that these labels cause consumers to stop and think before purchasing and overeating, and ultimately help change eating patterns. Even though the label was just recently implemented, it has been reported that nearly 40% of Chilean citizens use the labels as a purchasing guide. Additionally, children are also said to be responding well to the logos.

“We have shown that a simple message and a symbol is enough to communicate that you should be consuming less of certain foods. There’s nothing misleading about a warning logo, and clearly this is what worries the industry.” (Dr. Camila Corvalán, a nutritionist at the University of Chile who helped develop the food labels)

Some food companies are reformulating rather than labeling

Certainly these labels are getting attention, but what is even more impactful is that, according the The Food and Beverage Association of Chile, this new labeling has caused food processing companies to take note of their products and reformulate them to meet healthier standards.

More than 1,500 products have been reformulated to avoid carrying the black stop sign. For example, Nestlé has taken the lead and reformulated 6,500 products, globally, for better health and nutrition. For instance, Acticol, their alternative milk product, has been reformulated to help control cholesterol and support heart health. According to the company, “two glasses a day can help reduce cholesterol levels by as much as 10% in 30 days.”

If Chile can continue to successfully decrease their obesity problem, this program would be deemed a success and serve as an example for other countries in need. In fact, other Central and South American countries are already taking notice. Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, and Columbia are aiming to adopt the black stop sign labeling to help warn and educate their consumers about the risks associated with junk food.

Why aren’t more food companies labeling or reformulating their products?

Cost. Labeling costs are a steep proposition for food producers, and has become a somewhat controversial topic. Food processing companies are not inclined to make costly labeling changes unless there are government mandates. In addition, many corporations will have to spend the R&D to make the same foods with the same taste…but with reduced ingredients. And from a government standpoint, officials are asking themselves if big brother needs to be in your lunchbox! It is clear that change is needed, but are labels the best solution?

Labeling can be misleading. For example, 100 grams of almonds contains more than 275 calories and would qualify for a black stop sign. But, almonds are a healthy snack that contain healthy fats and essential nutrients, such as Vitamin E and magnesium. So, D2D would argue that this should be exempt from such labeling!

What about youdo you read the labels on your food purchases? Would you pause and reconsider your food purchase if it had a black stop sign on it warning you of the high levels of sugar, salt, and fat? Or would you just buy it anyway and know it was a treat? Let the D2D team know on Facebook!

The Bottom Line: 

There certainly isn’t one solution to solve the growing obesity epidemic. Warning labels may force consumers to pause before purchase, but will they help create healthy habits in the long term? 


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