By Melissa Jensen
Imagine yourself at the grocery store, trying to decide on a snack to buy. You look at your options and are struck by the black stop sign on the packaging. The stop sign is warning you of the high content of saturated fats, sugars, sodium and/or calories. How would this influence what you decide to buy or not buy?
Front-of-package labels typically serve two objectives: (1) they give consumers information to help make healthier choices; and (2) they encourage industry to reformulate their product towards healthier options. Front-of-package labels might vary among different countries in their type (logo, traffic lights, warning labels), whether or not the label is mandatory, the nutrients of concern, and the limits of these nutrients, among others. This map shows the different systems in place around the world.
In July of 2016, the Chilean Law of Food Labeling and Advertising came into effect, and front-of-package warning labels for products that exceed thresholds of added total sugars, saturated fats, sodium (which I will call critical nutrients) or calories are one of the key components of the law. In addition, the law states that these products cannot be sold in schools and they should not be marketed to children under 14 years.
As a graduate student working with the Global Food Research Program, I had the opportunity to spend part of my summer this year in Santiago (Chile) working to advance my dissertation work and having the chance to observe warning labels in the local food environment. While there I saw warning labels like:
Pringles… “High in Saturated Fats” “High in Calories”
Strawberry-filled muffins… “High in Calories” “High in Sugars”
Chocolates and candies… “High in Sugars” “High in Calories”
Hot dogs and luncheon meats… “High in Sodium”
Warning labels were everywhere! Even some products that are usually marketed as healthier had it (see the Nature Valley granola bars below): an octagonal black logo that resembled the shape of a stop sign, with a clear message that these products contained high levels of these critical nutrients. No need to interpret percent values and serving sizes off a nutrition facts panel (like in most other countries), or a multi-colored logo indicating green for some nutrients but red for other ones. It was clear that the message on these products was simple, interpretable, and straightforward.
It didn’t take me long to spot a few products that surprisingly did not seem to have the label (pictures below). Even though the warning labels are designed to be front-of-package, the regulation allows for placement in the back, depending on the size of the package. This is understandable; however, it caught my attention that sometimes a product might have space for other front-of-pack marketing (such as the Super Ocho below) but place the warning label on the back. Other times, the placement of the label might be in hidden spots or hard to see given product design.
Going down the breakfast cereal aisle was also different in Chile. Take a look at the cereal boxes below… do you notice anything? Zucaritas (Frosted Flakes) and Chocapic no longer have the attractive cartoon-like figures to catch the attention of children. It took me a while to figure out why the M&Ms looked somewhat different, too. The M&M smiley face characters on the candy are also gone. Child-directed marketing strategies, which were more common in unhealthier products prior to the legislation, at least for beverages, are now prohibited in Chile on any products exceeding the nutrient thresholds. Therefore, most cereal boxes now have no cartoon-like figures on them. Note, however, that I do say most.
Although child-directed marketing strategies are prohibited for products considered “High in” critical nutrients, you can still find techniques such as cartoon figures, celebrities, free stickers and other child-appeals on products that do not exceed the legislative thresholds. See the breakfast cereals, flavored milks and soft drink below. One of the goals front-of-package labels is to promote reformulation. This is a positive when we are seeing products slowly shift towards less sodium, sugar, or fats, which industry excessively adds to processed products to make them more flavorful and addicting. The downside of some of these reformulated products, depending on their nature, is that they will shift from containing sugars to non-nutritive sweeteners. Although these are considered for the most part safe, their long-term consumption, at least in children, is not recommended.
Therefore, a key question is whether we want to allow the promotion of these types of products to children? The answer to this question is not always simple. Reformulated products might contain ingredients we would like to discourage children from consuming. So, cartoon-figures on an orange-flavored soda, just because it is lower in sugar than the original version? Free stickers on chocolate-flavored milk to make it attractive to kids? How about no stickers and cartoons at all and we stop manipulating children’s choices? But… what about the Donald Duck on the bag of apples (image not shown, but spotted in several stores)? Or the Mickey Mouse on the fresh pineapple label which I have often seen, even in the US? Then it becomes more complicated. Should future legislation ban child-directed marketing altogether? How or where do we draw the line?
You might be wondering “Do these labels work?” Although studies assessing changes in food purchases and dietary intake are currently underway, preliminary evidence and results are promising. Research from an INTA-UNC collaboration has shown that Chilean moms understand and use front-of-package warning labels to make healthier food choices for their kids. Furthermore, two out of three Chileans reported they stopped buying certain products, while about half said they changed their usual brands, due to the stop signs, according to a different survey conducted in 2018. Another study found that the availability of foods and drinks with the warning label decreased in school kiosks, following the ban of these products in the school food environment.
Chile was the first country globally to implement a warning label of this kind, and since, other countries have followed. Peru has implemented a system similar to Chile’s (since June 2019), whereas in Mexico just last week the law was approved by the Senate, after years of discussion and advocacy efforts. Overall, I applaud the Chilean government and all the stakeholders that were involved in designing this policy and seeing it through implementation. Non-communicable diseases are a burden for health systems; there is a need for improving diets world-wide and creating healthier food environments. Front-of-package warning labels are a step in that direction. Countries can look forward to learning more about the experiences in Chile, as well as the results in the food environment, and this can help guide future efforts in other contexts.
Peer-edited by Laetitia Meyrueix and Ashley Aguillard