Tue | Oct 3, 2023

Christopher Tufton | Laying down the burden of ultra-processed foods

Published:Sunday | September 3, 2023 | 12:07 AM
Christopher Tufton
Christopher Tufton

IN JAMAICA, a health crisis looms – one tied not to nature but to nutrition.

Despite fertile lands and a rich farming legacy, Jamaica finds itself over-reliant on imported ultra-processed foods and the resulting rise in obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes and heart disease, which are reaching emergency levels.

In 2020, Jamaica recorded 22,022 deaths from all causes, according to the most recent mortality data. Diabetes topped the list as the leading cause of death at 13 per cent, with stroke at 11 per cent, hypertensive disease at eight per cent, ischaemic heart disease (like heart attacks) at eight per cent, and violent assaults accounting for four per cent. Notably, NCDs were responsible for 16,918 deaths, making up 77 per cent of the total deaths that year.

Alarmingly, many of these deaths occurred before individuals reached age 70, stripping families and communities of vital members. The survivors often face lasting health issues, impacting their quality of life and placing financial burdens on families and public infrastructure.

A significant factor in these health concerns is Jamaica’s reliance on diets high in trans fats and a continuous intake of processed and ultra-processed foods.

In response to these escalating health concerns, the Government of Jamaica has introduced robust strategies aimed at addressing the detrimental dietary habits prevalent in the country. Led by the Ministry of Health & Wellness, there is a definitive plan in place to eradicate industrially produced trans fatty acids from the nation’s food chain.

In collaboration with the Pan American Health Organisation, the Ministry has utilised impact modelling to understand the transformative benefits of this initiative, leading to legislative reviews to solidify these changes. Concurrently, Jamaica is actively contributing to the development of CARICOM standards, advocating for measures like Front of Package Labelling.

However, there are several hurdles to implementing these changes, particularly from industry lobbyists and concerns over increased costs due to new labelling, which many argue will be passed on to the consumer. There is also a prevailing notion that healthier options equate to higher costs, a perspective that can deter change in a region grappling with poverty.

Yet, in an area abundant in natural resources, fostered by a tropical climate and fertile soils, this narrative might not hold. The real challenge lies in minimising waste caused by inefficient post-harvest practices and storage, which makes the Caribbean more dependent on imports. Such challenges necessitate immediate action.


Building on these efforts, another strategy under consideration is promoting access to in-season foods. Interestingly, during high harvest seasons, fresh agricultural products can often be more affordable than processed alternatives. However, Jamaica’s complex internal food supply chain, marked by the heavy influence of intermediaries, distorts market prices. By the time these middlemen purchase from producers and then sell to consumers, prices see a significant surge.

To address this, there’s a pressing need to merge health and agricultural strategies, prioritising areas such as technology-enhanced farming, improved pre- and post-harvest practices, and revamped agricultural marketing. While these reforms hold promise, achieving them requires more than just policy adjustments. It calls for a deep-rooted cultural and behavioural shift.

In seeking long-term solutions, schools stand out as ground zero for moulding the future generation’s food choices. Childhood habits often set the stage for adult behaviours.

Japan provides a notable model for Jamaica in this context. Despite global trends, Japan boasts low childhood overweight and obesity rates, a success often attributed to its school lunch programme that stresses dietary education and balance. Taking a cue from such successes, Jamaica is on the move. The country’s Parliament is nearing the approval of a comprehensive National School Nutrition Policy. Its goals are straightforward: establish and enforce rigorous nutritional standards, enhance the overall health of students, and promote schools as hubs for healthy food choices. By 2030, the aim is for 85 per cent of schools to provide healthy food options, and by 2025, for the same percentage to offer regular physical activity for all grade levels.

Building on the momentum from school-based nutritional efforts, the Jamaican government is branching out to reshape the broader food landscape in its continued push against NCDs.


One innovative facet of this strategy is the “Better for You Menu Options” initiative. Spearheaded by the ministry, this programme engages Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs) – integral to Jamaica’s dining scene – to become allies in promoting healthier diets. Instead of imposing regulations, the MOHW is fostering collaboration, equipping QSRs with the knowledge to align their menus with the nation’s health goals. With guidance from the ministry’s nutrition professionals, certain dishes earn the “Better For You” logo. But this stamp is more than just a symbol; it represents a promise to the Jamaican populace – a guarantee of a meal that is both wholesome and satisfying.

While the Jamaican government has made notable progress through initiatives like the “Better for You Menu Options” and its school nutrition policies, a significant challenge lurks in the shadow of the country’s deep connections to the US diaspora.

The tradition of Jamaican families receiving barrels filled with ultra-processed foods from relatives in the US is deeply embedded in the culture. These barrels, sent as symbols of familial love and care, inadvertently become conduits for introducing and solidifying some of the less wholesome dietary habits common in the US. What’s meant to be a gesture of connection and support often unintentionally undermines Jamaica’s push towards healthier eating.

With the weight of the NCD epidemic pressing down, the nation’s commitment to reshaping its food landscape showcases resilience and innovation. Emphasising local, fresh produce and championing a health-forward narrative, and educational initiatives promise a brighter nutritional future. However, the journey is as multifaceted as the challenge itself.

As Jamaica continues to navigate this complex terrain, it’s clear that a collective effort – fusing policy, industry, and community – will be the key to ushering in a healthier, more nourished generation.

Dr Christopher Tufton is Jamaica’s minister of health and wellness and member of parliament for St Catherine West Central. Send feedback to cctufton@gmail.com or columns@gleanerjm.com.