ROME – Alejandro Calvillo found himself the target of sophisticated and personal spyware attacks just as Mexico announced a tax hike on sugary drinks.
His campaign against obesity had just become tense, a relatable experience for many who are fighting to change unhealthy food systems around the world.
Calvillo is the director of El Poder del Consumidor (“Consumer Power”), a platform that defends consumer rights and promotes healthy food consumption.
Mexico consumes more ultra-processed and sugary drinks than any other country in Latin America – “the paradise of junk food,” Calvillo calls it.
In 2016, the adult obesity in Mexico rate was 28.4 percent (24.3 million people), the third-highest in Latin America behind Uruguay (28.9 percent) and Chile (28.8 percent) according to the World Health Organization.
A GLOBAL EPIDEMIC
In the Latin American and Caribbean region, an estimated 105 million adults are obese and 42 million are going hungry. It reflects a global trend where the number of obese people outstrips the number of those who are starving.
According to the latest reports from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the prevalence of obesity is increasing in all regions and growing quicker than the number of overweight.
Roughly two billion adults are either overweight or obese globally.
One in five deaths – 11 million in total – were attributable to poor diet in 2017, a factor that has already become a bigger killer than smoking or hypertension, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
One of the UN’s sustainable development goals for 2030 is to eradicate all forms of malnutrition but that endeavor looks to be slipping away.
Nor does it seem likely the WHO will attain its goal of reversing trends in diabetes and obesity by 2025.
There has also been a spike in the number of countries where prevalent obesity and severe hunger co-exist.
Poorer sectors of society are most at risk of obesity, as cheaper food is often less nutritious.
GARBAGE AND CHEAP FOOD
This is where highly processed products, which contain additives rather than natural flavors, enter the equation.
Things like industrial pastries, soft drinks, chips, sugary cereals, sausages and frozen ready meals are widely available and, according to several studies, are becoming cheaper than fresh, nutritious food in rich and emerging economies.
Even in the world’s poorer nations, ultra-processed food products cost less than healthy alternatives, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.
According to Brent Loken, the co-author of the EAT Commission report, while eating processed foods may be cheaper in the short-term it becomes more expensive in the long-run.
Studies have already linked processed foods to cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
What one does not ingest also takes its toll as many people miss out on nutrients and minerals provided by vegetables, fruit and nuts.
The transition to lower quality diets has become a global trend in recent decades, fueled by economic development, globalization, sedentary lifestyles and urbanization.
In a bid to reverse this, Mexico and Chile have taken tough measures against unhealthy products and their ideas have caught the attention of other governments.
The 10 percent tax hike on sugary drinks in Mexico slightly reduced consumption, although Cavillo suggests raising it to 20 percent.
Boosting local fresh food and traditional products remains a pending task in Mexico, however, a country where local markets and smallholders are starting to disappear amid a tide of stores flogging processed food.
Chile, on the other hand, passed a food labeling law in 2011, but the measure has not “fully come into force,” one of its backers, Senator Guido Girardi from the center-left Party for Democracy (PPD), said.
Girardi partnered with scientists to analyze food marketing. Studies with children, for example, found that they more easily understood black labels warning of things like high sugar content, than the traditional rainbow coloring.
Regulations in Chile, therefore, stipulate that food products must carry black labels if they exceed limits set for salt, sugar, saturated fats or calories.
If a product does require a black label, it cannot be advertised on TV or sold in schools.
It has had an effect.
According to Girardi, companies have changed ingredients in 20 percent of their food products to avoid the labels and the sale of soft drinks and sugary cereals has decreased by 25 and 20 percent respectively.
This is despite “brutal” opposition from some large companies, who Girardi said have tried to “sabotage” the initiative by lobbying public figures to become detractors.
A CHANGE OF BEHAVIOR
Joining activists and politicians, experts such as Alejandra Girona, the Uruguay coordinator for the Right to Food Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean, are entering the fray.
She contributed to the evidence that prompted Tabare Vazquez, Uruguay’s president, to sign a decree on food labeling similar to that in Chile. The law is due to come into effect in 2020.
Peru and Mexico have also adopted the measure.
Girona said improving living standards in Uruguay spurred an increase in the availability of processed food.
“People got an income and in a short period of time, the supply of ready meals increased. People stopped cooking,” she said.
Girona and Lawrence Haddad, the executive director of the Global Alliance to Improve Nutrition (GAIN), believe governments need to intervene more and dedicate money to research on consumer rights and healthy food.
Corinna Hawkes, a Professor of Food Policy at the University of London, said it is important to understand the behavioral aspects that have driven those with nutrition problems to processed foods.
Other options geared toward changing bad food habits include assistance programs for vulnerable people, the provision of drinking water to cut down on sugary drink alternatives, the elimination of trans fats and a boost in local produce in schools and public institutions.
A batter of measures that have already been tested in Latin America, the global fight against obesity.