Mexico tackles obesity crisis with tough food labels
Mexican consumers will soon be confronted with ominous black labels on food and beverages warning that they contain “too much sugar”, “too much fat” or “too many calories” as the country tries to tackle one of the world’s worst obesity and diabetes epidemics.
The compulsory new labelling system, which has passed regulatory hurdles and is expected to be in place next month at the latest, will mean adiós to Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger, the Lucky Charms leprechaun, the Trix rabbit, Fruit Loops’ Sam the Toucan and any other cuddly cartoon creature used to entice children.
Following in the footsteps of Chile, where a similar system has delivered results, some products could garner several labels.
A bag of crisps or a packet of biscuits, for example, could have three — too high in salt or sugar as well as excess calories and saturated fat, based on the proportion per 100g. A bottle of juice could carry a sugar and calorie alert and there will be separate recommendations over caffeine and artificial sweetener content.
Food giants who make hefty profits in Mexico — Latin America’s second-biggest economy is a world leader in soda consumption and is the fifth biggest market for Nestlé — were digging in for a fight.
“It’s an ideological crusade against the processed food industry,” said Jaime Zabludovsky, president of the Mexican Council for the Consumer Goods Industry. A former North American Free Trade Agreement negotiator, he said industry associations could seek injunctions or even fight the measures under Nafta or its successor, USMCA, arguing that the labels were tantamount to technical barriers to trade.
Mexico pioneered the use of taxes on sodas and junk food in 2014, a policy that has since been adopted, with variations, in the UK and Portugal. But the government’s latest National Health and Nutrition Survey found diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol were all still on the rise. More than eight out of 10 Mexicans including children aged one to four drank sugary drinks, the survey found.
“The industry hasn’t realised that we’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic in Mexico,” said Dr Juan Rivera, director-general of the National Institute of Public Health. “Seventy-five per cent of adults and 35 per cent of children and adolescents are overweight or obese . . . The state has a duty to protect public health.”
The industry, however, says the compulsory black labels will be a backwards step compared with the current system which displays the proportion of sugar, salt, fats and calories per portion as a percentage of the recommended daily allowance (RDA).
“A packet of Halls Mentho-Lyptus throat sweets contain 11 calories per sweet, which is one per cent of RDA, but it would have two labels — excess sugar and excess calories,” said Mr Zabludovsky. “It’s madness . . . There are no labels in the world that can resolve the problem of obesity.”
But the UN, the World Health Organisation and the World Public Health Nutrition Association have all supported the initiative, Dr Rivera said.
Alejandro Calvillo, head of the Power of the Consumer, an NGO, said the labelling system in Chile had delivered results, including a 25 per cent fall in sugary drink purchases in the first year. “It’s one of the regulations that has been proven to be most effective in the shortest time,” he said.
Dr Rivera said Mexicans get a quarter of their calories from sugary drinks and junk food and eat more ultraprocessed food than anywhere else in Latin America.
“I’m not anti-industry but there are products which are harmful to health,” he said, adding the industry had “a great capacity to adapt” with new formulations.
But that will cost. Iñaki Landáburu, head of the national organisation of corner shops, said he expected sales of products with three or four labels to fall by as much as a quarter. “There’s a lot of inventory and I don’t know how many millions and millions of pesos it will cost to change the wrappers,” he said.
“I don’t necessarily read labels on the packets,” said Lina Blum, fending off her four year-old son’s demands for sugary cereal at a supermarket in Mexico City. “But when it’s so visible, it’s going to make you think.”
But even consumers who liked the idea were uncertain how effective the labels would be.
“People won’t pay attention, even if they know it’s bad for them, as long as it’s tasty,” said Olin López, a 20-year-old teaching assistant.
“I don’t think it’ll change my habits,” said Emanuel Herrera, munching on a cheese and salami-laden pizza nearby.
But that is not the point, said Dr Rivera. “For the generation of obese Mexicans, these measures won’t have a big impact,” he conceded. “Where we are pinning all our hopes are on children, a new generation and new culture.”