In the most obese country in Latin America, black octagons on food packaging have compelled people to shop healthier. The Chilean model – placing warning symbols on sweet foods as well as those with large amounts of salt and saturated fats – is gradually being introduced in some other countries. 

When a customer who wants to eat healthy enters the aisle with sweets in a supermarket in  Santiago de Chile, melancholy will descend over him. The black octagonal stickers on the products visually scream: “Don’t buy us!” The unequivocal “champion” are the well-known Oreo cookies – the only ones with all four warning labels that the law on labeling packaged foods offers. They say: “High in sugar. High content of saturated fats. High in sodium. High in calories.” 

It’s precisely the oreo that Senator Guido Girardi Lavin holds in his hand in his office. “When you see that your favorite cookies have four labels, you can only buy them for yourself with pangs of conscience, but you certainly won’t buy them for your child,” the 59-year-old doctor says confidently. He was the one who, despite the initial mockery, stubbornly persevered. After nine years of effort, he pushed through a law that has been in force in Chile since June 2016 that wants to fight obesity by means of a visual warning on food packaging. 

Fat vs. Thin 3:1 

“Sugar is the greatest terrorist of the 21st century.” The senator lets fly with a catchy slogan, adding that its excessive consumption, and the putting on of fat that follows, kill more people than traffic accidents. He begins to count off how obesity leads to, among other things, diabetes, heart attacks, joint problems, and other serious health problems. It is not a problem of individuals, but a societal diagnosis. 

Image by Damian Gadal/Wikimedia Commons

OECD statistics that map the situation in the world’s developed countries provide stark evidence: in this exotic, 18-million-inhabitant South American country, which is squeezed into a 4,000-kilometer-long noodle between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, lives the second fattest population in the world (just after the United States). More than a third of those over the age of 15 are obese, and another 40 percent are overweight – although, in the 1990s, the country was dealing with the malnutrition of the poorest layer of the population.

“Paradoxically, today the disease of the poor is obesity. People are fat without having enough of the right nutrients,” notes Girardi, who represents the center-left Party for Democracy. The main culprit is, according to him, the wrong way of eating. Therefore, already in 2014, he pushed through a law specifically targeting sweetened beverages, which the Chileans love and which the senator describes as “metabolic bombs.” For all soft drinks that contained more than six grams of sugar per 100 milliliters, the value added tax (VAT) was raised from 13 to 18 percent; in contrast, VAT was reduced to 10 percent for those that appeared below this threshold.

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Cooperation with university nutritional experts takes place under the patronage of Girardi, who, in his drive for a leaner Chile continued further by introducing labels.

“Until then, like elsewhere, we only had information about the composition of the product in small letters on the back, which is deliberately done in such a non-transparent way so the customer doesn’t understand, and the company can defend itself that the consumer had been informed, after all, with the fact that he is eating some crap,” says Girardi.

“But now, even a six-year-old schoolboy can, thanks to the octagons, decide in an informed way whether or not to buy it,” argues the senator, whom the Organization for Food and Agriculture at the United Nations named its ambassador in the fight against obesity.

“Without Labels, Without a Guilty Feeling”

How did the law actually come about? Its creators presented a panel of two thousand people (including children) different shapes and colors of warning symbols and people unequivocally chose the black-and-white stop sign. These octagons have a double impact. The first on the customer, who, with a first glance at the label, might be discouraged from placing the product in her shopping cart. And the second on the manufacturer, who wants to quickly get rid of the stigmatizing label. The company thus would rather change the recipe and remove the harmful substances to get under clearly defined limits and get rid of the disparaging sticker.

(c) Reportér magazine

Some took it as an opportunity for some smart marketing – such as Soprole, which is the leader on the local market with dairy products. “We reformulated the recipe of more than 120 products, so that we can say that 72 percent of all our products and 100 percent of those aimed at a child customer, are without labels,” Carolina Matus, the company’s manager, wrote in an email. Her company uses the phrase “without labels” as a slogan. Another company, Danone, sells its nonfat yogurts with the slogan “Without labels, without a guilty feeling.” 

In the cooling boxes of supermarkets, the impact of the law is obvious among the selection of yogurts. Warnings remain primarily on cheeses due to excessive salt or fat. But the “Mark of Cain,” for example, can’t be found on Fanta, which replaced sugar with artificial sweeteners.

However, for nutritionists, that presents a complicated question as to whether a lover of Fanta isn’t jumping from the frying pan straight into the fire: it is not entirely clear what impact artificial sweeteners have on the body. 

The Scary Effect of the Octagons

By November 2018, the recipe of one-fifth of the country’s food products had changed (the most were cereals – 30 percent, then beverages – 25 percent, and dairy products – 23 percent). That does not, of course, mean, that all companies have agreed with the regulations.

Marisol Figueroa – a representative of Alimentos y Bebidas de Chile (ABC), the chamber of food and beverage producers  – expressed herself in a rather stilted way by email; from her answers, it is nevertheless clear that the chamber does not agree with the established system, though constantly repeating its determination take part in the fight against obesity.

It seems unfair to the ABC chamber, which lobbied hard against the new model, that the labeling system only applies to packaged food, and not to restaurant meals.

Octagons are also not found on alcoholic beverages. The authors of the law acknowledge this shortcoming, stating that they are acting against unhealthy foods one by one because of the strong lobbying of their opponents. 

Until now unmarked snacks should be addressed in a future round, because people around Girardi have many other ideas on how to tighten their belt around obesity. 

Due to a number of other measures concerning hygiene and shelf-life, Figueroa also suggests that it is not possible to simply redesign a recipe so that it does not affect the quality. According to her, this leads to some ranges of products (such as wafer cookies) consisting of almost all goods having a black warning. “So the buyer in reality has no way to compare,” writes Figueroa. “Labels do not fulfill the goal of informing consumers. Instead, they scare the population with some danger, which seems wrong to us.”  

You’re Not Allowed on TV 

Argentine economist Guillermo Paraja, who specializes in public health from the business angle at the Catholic University in Santiago, says: “The food industry first pushed for numerical information to remain on the back side of products. But they calculate the average daily requirement of individual nutrients according to a physically active middle-aged man. Tell me, how many of those are there in today’s sedentary society?” 

When companies saw that the public was asking for some change, they began to press for a three-color traffic light on packaging that Ecuadorians, for example, have in Latin America. “Why are they promoting it? Because it has been tested that the traffic light does not help much with people’s understanding of harmful food content; it rather confuses them,” laughs Paraja, adding: “The advantage of labels is their absolute understandability. It’s just yes – no.”

Paraja notes that the labels also significantly restrict producers in their marketing. A message from the Ministry of Health must accompany billboard or print ads. The black box, which covers 15 percent of the space, reads: “Prefer food with fewer warning signs.”  In addition, commercials for labeled goods can be aired on TV only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. And such products cannot be sold in schools at all.

“It’s not possible to use toys or cartoon animals to attract [kids] to these products. Tony the Tiger disappeared from Kellogg’s globally famous cereal. You can’t find chocolate figurines of Easter rabbits or Santa Claus. My daughter only knows the sweet egg of Kinder Surprise from Argentina when her grandparents buy it for her,” explains the 40-year-old. 

Upon hearing the words “Kinder Surprise,” his 10-year-old daughter – who during an hour-long interview in a café is bored to death – miraculously comes to life for a moment. 

In the Footsteps of Tobacco 

Cecilia Sepulved, chairwoman of the Chamber of Nutrition Specialists, sees the labels as a good start in a long-distance run. “But we are not acting consistently. On the one hand, we introduce octagons, and on the other hand, we are reducing compulsory physical education classes at school,” she laments. 

“Psychology is important in the fight against obesity, because people don’t eat only food, but also a beloved brand. We also need to teach people to break the habit of overeating. Rice has no labels, but if you eat a heaping plate of it, you’ll get fat too,” she says, recalling the Latin American vice of stuffing oneself to bursting with huge portions, either at home or in restaurants. 

Sepulved emphasizes the importance of octagons not stigmatizing people who cannot afford to buy healthy, but more expensive, food. It is for this reason that Senator Girardi has prepared a proposal for special meal vouchers for those with less money, for which it would be possible to buy only fruit and vegetables. 

According to surveys, the labels in supermarkets are having some influence on nine out of 10 Chileans. Nutritional expert Marcela Reyes says that in the first stage, after the introduction of the new standards, people in a sample of 2,000 households reduced their purchases by 30 percent of labeled cereals, which until then many customers had considered healthy, and soft drinks and fruit drinks by 23 percent. On the other hand, there were no fluctuations in the sale of chocolates, in which everyone counts on high calories. 

Unfortunately, there have been no positive changes in the basic goal: the effort to reduce obesity. The 30-year-old Reyes shares in the work of a scientific team from the Universidad de Chile that has been monitoring the impact of the new policy on a long-term basis. According to her, the less-than-four-year span since its adoption is too short a time. “It will be as it was with tobacco products for long decades to come. First of all, a set of various regulations must get things out of public life that support being overweight,” she says, and meaningfully weighs up the cafe’s sugar bowl in her palm.    

She compares this with the first warning signs on cigarette boxes that smoking is harmful to one’s health. Then advertising for tobacco products was completely banned, followed by a ban on smoking in restaurants. “In the end, consumers have gotten it, and the number of smokers is falling. However, we still have to wait for some time to see some impact in a decline in lung cancer. It is similar to obesity. We may not see the first results until the next generation,” she adds. 

The Chilean Model 

But other changes are not on the agenda now. The author of this article gathered information before large-scale social protests hit Chile at the turn of the year. In a country – which, moreover, is now paralyzed by the coronavirus like the rest of the planet – issues as serious as changing the constitution are now being addressed, so the fight against obesity has been dropped from the list of priorities. 

President Sebastian Pinera originally blocked the law during his first term; he did not agree with the restrictions on television marketing. Girardi then went to parliament for weeks with a banner that read: “The president sold the health of our children to McDonald’s.” In the end, the proposal did not pass until the left came to power. 

However, after returning to the highest office in March 2018, Pinera signed on to the law: he saw its popularity among citizens and also that his homeland was setting an example to the world. Last year, measures, including black octagons, were copied in Peru and this year in Uruguay; their legal framework also significantly inspired Israel. Parliaments in Mexico, Brazil, and Canada have also begun discussing the “Chilean model.” At the same time, until now, this term has meant a deregulated free market, which was introduced during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Today, on the other hand, the “Chilean model” paradoxically seeks to put the free market under control in the area of the food business. 

Tomas Nidr is a foreign reporter, collaborating with various Czech media. This article originally appeared in the Czech newsmagazine Reporter. Translated by Jeremy Druker.