Sun | Oct 25, 2020

Reduce your risk to COVID-19: Combat obesity

Published:Wednesday | September 30, 2020 | 7:29 AM

Recent research has revealed that individuals with obesity have 48 per cent higher rates of death to COVID-19, and with more than half of Jamaicans (54 per cent) being overweight or obese, the push to combat obesity and improve nutrition has become more urgent than ever.

Evidence has shown that a key intervention is empowering consumers with clear front-of-pack labels that identify the unhealthiest foods. Global health organisation Vital Strategies and global partners released the Guide to Introducing Effective Front-of-Package Nutrient Labels to assist countries in taking up this cost-effective, high-impact strategy to combat obesity.

“We welcome this guidebook, as a well-planned front-of-package nutrient label policy could have dramatic impact in Jamaica,” said Deborah Chen, executive director at Heart Foundation of Jamaica. “Such a policy would complement existing obesity-prevention initiatives and help to reduce the burden non-communicable diseases have on our health system. I encourage the Government to consider adopting and enforcing an effective front-of-package labelling system that will enable Jamaicans to make healthier choices.”

“Smart labelling regulations work. Most shoppers spend fewer then 10 seconds selecting each food and beverage item – they need quick and easy ways to select the healthiest foods,” said Nandita Murukutla, vice-president of Global Policy and Research at Vital Strategies. “Our new guidebook will help countries develop smart strategies to use front-of-package space for visible and clearly understood nutrient warning labels that help consumers avoid unhealthy purchases and, ultimately, end up with healthier populations.”

EFFECTIVE LABELS

The guidebook was produced by Vital Strategies and the University of North Carolina’s Global Food Research Program and presented at a virtual event alongside the United Nations General Assembly. The guidebook draws on success stories from countries such as Chile and Mexico and outlines how to develop effective front-of-package labels, including sharing the scientific basis for labels, how to adapt existing labels from other settings for local context, testing label designs and the need to build public support for the effort.

“The best-available evidence suggests that providing clear and informative front-of-package nutrient warning labels is one of the most effective approaches to preventing obesity and nutrition-related NCDs like diabetes and hypertension,” said Barry Popkin, PhD, and W.R. Kenan Jr, distinguished professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. “If people understand upfront, right in the grocery aisle, how certain foods impact health, they will be much more likely to make healthier choices.”

A study published by Professor Popkin and colleagues in February 2019 provides some of the best evidence for front-of-package labels. It found that Chile’s adoption of front-of-package labels on sugar-sweetened beverages reduced consumption by nearly 25 per cent in 18 months. When warning label regulations began, Chile was the number one consumer per capita of sugar-sweetened beverages in the world.

Nearly one-third of the world’s population are overweight or obese, including more than 41 million overweight children under the age of 5. Between 2010 and 2017, obesity among Jamaican children aged 13-15 increased by 68 per cent. Obesity is a key driver of non-communicable disease, which causes more than 70 per cent of global deaths. Seventy-eight per cent of all deaths (nearly four in five) in Jamaica are caused by non-communicable diseases.

Unhealthy diets are estimated to be responsible for 11 million preventable deaths globally each year. Food insecurity and structural inequalities prevent many low- and middle-income communities from accessing fresh groceries and nutritious meals, leading to negative health consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated barriers to accessing affordable healthy foods, forcing many to rely on processed and low-nutrient foods.

“The ability for shoppers to quickly and easily discern which food and drink choices are healthier is an important piece of fighting negative health outcomes on a big scale,” said Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health. “I urge governments to act on the body of evidence compiled in this guide to give people the tools they need to make healthier choices for themselves and their families.”

For more information or to download a copy of the Front-of-Package Nutrient Labels guide, please visit http://vitalstrategies.org/whats-in-our-food.