Ultra-processed food “killing” Caribbean, Latin American families

WASHINGTON, DC, USA – A new report by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) says ultra-processed foods are gaining ground among Latin American and Caribbean families.

Processed food

The report says ultra-processed food, sugary beverages and fast food, with poor nutritional quality, are replacing more nourishing domestic foods in diets of families in the region.

According to PAHO, the report shows that sales of ultra-processed foods and beverages grew 8.3 per cent between 2009 and 2014, the last year for which data were available.

The report estimates that those sales continued to grow another 9.2 per cent 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 said 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,” da Silva Gomes said. “Ultra-processed products cannot form the basis of our nutrition. They can’t be an essential product in our diets.”

PAHO said the report gathered information on Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela, which together constitute 80 per cent of the population of the region of Latin America and the Caribbean.

It also analysed 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 analysed contained excessive quantities of at least one of these critical nutrients.

Together, 43 per cent of what these products contribute is sugar, the report said, adding that soft drinks, fresh and salted snacks, cookies, pies, cakes and desserts, and sauces and dressings were “especially problematic”.

The report said ultra-processed products typically contain little or no whole foods.

It says these products 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 savoury snacks, candies (confectionery), industrial breads, cakes, and cookies (biscuits), sweetened breakfast cereals, reconstituted meat products and pre-prepared dishes, the report says.

In addition to sugars, oils, fats and salt, PAHO said 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 colours, flavours and flavour enhancers.

Additives are used to imitate and enhance the sensory qualities of natural foods or to disguise unattractive qualities of the final product, PAHO said.

A previous PAHO report on ultra-processed products revealed that the increase in sales (and related consumption) was associated with increases in body weight, “which indicates that these products are an important driver of growing rates of overweight and obesity.”

In the region, PAHO said some 360 million people, almost 60 per cent of the population, are overweight.

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

The report suggests reduction of the health risks posed by ultra-processed products by reducing their overall consumption.

PAHO said this requires implementation of fiscal policies. as well as regulation of ultra-processed product labelling, promotion, advertising and sales, especially in schools.

The report also recommended 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.

PAHO said some countries, including Barbados, Brazil, Chile, Dominica, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay have begun implementing one or more of these measures, “with good results”.

The health organisation said the measures are in line with its Plan of Action to prevent obesity in children and adolescents, which was approved in 2014 and calls for strict limits on commercialisation of food products that are unhealthy for children.