Ultra-processed foods gain ground among Latin American and Caribbean families

Washington, D.C., 23 October 2019 (PAHO) – Ultra-processed food, sugary beverages and fast food with poor nutritional quality are replacing more nourishing domestic foods in diets of families in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a report published by the Pan American Health Organization, “Ultra-processed food and drink products in Latin America: Sales, sources, nutrient profiles, and policy implications.” 

The report shows that sales of ultra-processed foods and beverages grew 8.3 percent between 2009 and 2014, the last year for which data were available. It estimates that those sales continued to grow another 9.2% from 2014 to 2019, generating alarming effects on health and requiring government regulations to reverse this trend. 

“We are observing the beginnings of an epidemic of ultra-processed food consumption,” said Fabio da Silva Gomes, regional advisor in nutrition at PAHO. “Its sales are growing disproportionately in comparison with those of other foods, filling families’ tables with products that do not contribute to good health,” he added. 

The trend is promoted by the marketing and the unrestricted publicity of these products in a market that is practically deregulated in the region. “We need governments to establish policies that restrict sales of these products. Ultra-processed products cannot form the basis of our nutrition. They can’t be an essential product in our diets,” da Silva Gomes stressed. 

The report gathered information on Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela, which together constitute 80 percent of the population of the region of Latin America and the Caribbean. It also analyzed 250 products, divided into 89 categories, and pointed out those which exceed the recommended levels of free sugars, total fat, saturated fats, or sodium; and which are the specific products that contribute more energy and the critical nutrients. 

According to the report, all the products analyzed contained excessive quantities of at least one of these critical nutrients. Together, 43% of what these products contribute is sugar. Soft drinks, fresh and salted snacks, cookies, pies, cakes and desserts, and sauces and dressings were listed as especially problematic. 

Ultra-processed products typically contain little or no whole foods, the report notes. They are industrial formulations made mostly from substances extracted or derived from foods, plus additives. They include soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened juices and drinks, sweet and savory snacks, candies (confectionery), industrial breads, cakes, and cookies (biscuits), sweetened breakfast cereals, reconstituted meat products, and pre-prepared dishes. 

In addition to sugars, oils, fats and salt, ultra-processed products include substances also derived from foods but not used in home cooking, such as hydrogenated oils, modified starches, protein isolates, and additives such as colors, flavors and flavor enhancers. Additives are used to imitate and enhance the sensory qualities of natural foods or to disguise unattractive qualities of the final product. 

A previous PAHO report on ultra-processed products revealed that the increase in sales (and related consumption) was associated with increases in bodyweight, which indicates that these products are an important driver of growing rates of overweight and obesity. In the Region, some 360 million people, almost 60% of the population, are overweight. 

The report recommends that governments, scientific societies and civil society organizations support and implement policies and regulations to discourage consumption of ultra-processed products and protect and to promote the election of healthy foods.

The findings presented in this report point to the need for strengthening of food systems that protect public health in Latin America and that are rational, appropriate, and sustainable. This requires commitment and investment as top priorities for national governments. 

The report suggests reduction of the health risks posed by ultra-processed products by reducing their overall consumption. This requires implementation of fiscal policies as well as regulation of ultra-processed product labeling, promotion, advertising and sales, especially in schools. It also recommends development of new market opportunities to protect and increase the production, availability, affordability and consumption of unprocessed and minimally processed foods, and fresh handmade meals.

Some countries, including Barbados, Brazil, Chile, Dominica, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay have begun implementing one or more of these measures, with good results. The measures are in line with PAHO’s Plan of Action to prevent obesity in children and adolescents, which was approved in 2014 and calls for strict limits on commercialization of food products that are unhealthy for children.


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