Tackling obesity epidemic by banishing cartoons from packaging


Alejandro Sanchez sells sweets and other junk food in Mexico City. ‘People consume to fill up, not to nourish themselves,’ he says. — dpa

Their days are numbered: the beaming parrot on infant cereal, the pastry chef bear, the cartoon chocolate drops.

These cartoons, which have accompanied generations of Mexican consumers and promoted sales, will have to disappear from packaging, accused of being accomplices in the country’s obesity epidemic.

New regulations oblige the Mexican food industry, including the big international brands, to put warning labels on packaged food and sugary drinks, and to change the presentation of unhealthy products.

Mexico, the world’s largest consumer of soft drinks, is the country with the largest share of overweight or obese children, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef). It also ranks among the top places when it comes to overweight or obese adults. One in three children and adolescents, as well as seven out of 10 adults, are overweight.

The five new warning labels for excess calories, sugars, sodium, saturated fats or trans fats are already beginning to appear on packaging. And soon, the cartoon characters, celebrities and pets that attract children to unhealthy treats will also be banished.

“In all age groups, between 25% and 30% of the daily calorie intake comes from these industrialised foods and sugary drinks, ” says nutritionist Gabriela Olvera Mayorga from the Autonomous University of Mexico.

And during the Covid-19 pandemic, this showed its true price: Mexico is one of the countries with the highest death toll, and the majority of victims suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity.

Some 8.6 million adults – more than 10% of the population – have been diagnosed with diabetes, as have many children. In 2016, therefore, the country declared a state of epidemiological emergency.

The new labelling regulation was able to make its way through despite legal action on the industry’s part and protests by small retailers.

In addition, in the states of Oaxaca and Tabasco, the sale of junk food to children under 18 was banned. There are similar proposals in other states and at the national level.

“Before, dietary problems were seen as having individual causes, but today research is focusing more on the immediate environment: The individual depends a lot on what they’re offered, from what they can choose, ” says Olvera, who also works as a researcher for the National Institute of Public Health.

Jonathan Mateos Chalchi, a 23-year-old street vendor, sells fritters and salty treats on a street corner in Mexico City. “Peanuts, potatoes, Cheetos, chicharrones, ” he hawks. His tricycle with merchandise is decorated with two jaguar heads devouring some skulls.

“Yes, this food isn’t healthy, but it’s a question of not eating it excessively. It also plays a role that a lot of people spend their working hours sitting down or standing and don’t burn the fat. This is the reason why we are obese,” he explains. “All these campaigns worry me. They are going to affect me a lot.”

Jonathan Mateos Chalchi preparing a snack for a customer at his cart in Mexico City. ‘It’s a question of not eating it excessively,’ he says. — dpaJonathan Mateos Chalchi preparing a snack for a customer at his cart in Mexico City. ‘It’s a question of not eating it excessively,’ he says. — dpa

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said that the label would help guide consumers, alongside other informative campaigns. But he rejected the idea of bans or a tax hike on soft drinks adopted in 2014. “The most important thing is to raise awareness, ” he said.

The new label, inspired by one currently used in Chile, is the result of a large discussion process between authorities, scientists, civil society organisations and the industry.

International bodies welcomed its approval. “It could become an example for other countries, ” Unicef said.

The business chambers, however, protested: “It does not solve Mexicans’ health problems.”

The so-called NOM-051 also applies to powerful brands like Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Nestle, Mars and Hershey’s. Several have filed appeals with the courts. The industry argues that the new labelling causes economic damage, encourages unfair competition from informal products and violates international treaties.

“They have joined the battle with all the means at their disposal, ” says Alejandro Calvillo, director of El Poder del Consumidor (The Power of the Consumer), one of the groups that promote labelling.

Over the past 20 years, Calvillo explains, Mexico has suffered from a profound dietary transformation, even in rural and indigenous areas.

Industrialised products gained ground on the traditional nutrition of corn and beans, a process intensified with the onset of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

“In Mexico, we have the highest consumption of ultra-processed food in all of Latin America, ” he says. “In the most remote corners of the country there is no drinking water, but there are soft drinks.”

For Alejandro Sanchez, who has been running a sweets and junk food stall for 46 years, Mexicans’ bad diet is largely due to their low incomes and because they eat what’s available on the street. “There are no jobs that are well-paid. People consume to fill up, not to nourish themselves.”

Nutritionist Olvera explains that labelling must be part of a comprehensive strategy to improve habits, with campaigns to encourage breastfeeding, proper nutrition from an early age and physical exercise. “It has been said that labelling will not solve the problems of obesity. Of course not, not on its own, ” she says.

“But it is one of the strategies required. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s going to take a few years before we can assess its impact, ” says Olvera. – dpa/Andrea Sosa Cabrios

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