As COVID-19 highlights obesity’s harms, clear labels on unhealthy foods emerge as key strategy to improve nutrition

October 2, 2020

Recent research revealed that individuals with obesity have a 48% higher rate of death due to COVID-19. With more than two billion people around the world classified as overweight or obese, the push to improve nutrition has become more urgent than ever.

Evidence has shown that a key intervention is empowering consumers with clear front-of-package labels that identify the unhealthiest foods. The health organization Vital Strategies, along with global partners, recently released the Guide to Introducing Effective Front-of-Package Nutrient Labels to assist countries in taking up this cost-effective, high-impact strategy to combat obesity.

“Smart labeling regulations work. Most shoppers spend fewer then 10 seconds selecting each food and beverage item – they need quick and easy ways to select the healthiest foods.” said Nandita Murukutla, vice president of Global Policy and Research at Vital Strategies. “Our new guidebook will help countries develop smart strategies to use front-of-package space for visible and clearly understood nutrient warning labels that help consumers avoid unhealthy purchases — and, ultimately, end up with healthier populations.”

The guidebook was produced by Vital Strategies and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Global Food Research Program with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies; it was launched at a virtual event held alongside the United Nations General Assembly. The guidebook draws on success stories from countries such as Chile and Mexico and outlines how to develop effective front-of-package labels by sharing the scientific basis for labels, how to adapt existing labels from other settings for local context, tips for testing label designs and the need to build public support for the effort.

Dr. Barry Popkin

Dr. Barry Popkin

“The best available evidence suggests that providing clear and informative front-of-package nutrient warning labels is one of the most effective approaches to preventing obesity and nutrition-related noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and hypertension,” said Barry Popkin, PhD, the W. R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. “If people understand upfront — right in the grocery aisle — how certain foods impact health, they will be much more likely to make healthier choices.”

A study published by Popkin and colleagues in February 2019 provides some of the best evidence for front-of-package labels. It found that Chile’s adoption of front-of-package labels on sugar-sweetened beverages reduced consumption by nearly 25% in 18 months.  When the warning label regulations began, Chile was the number one consumer (per capita) of sugar-sweetened beverages in the world.

Nearly one-third of the world’s population are currently overweight or obese, including more than 41 million overweight children under the age of five. Unhealthy diets are estimated to be responsible for 11 million preventable deaths each year around the globe. Food insecurity and structural inequalities prevent many low- and middle-income communities from accessing fresh groceries and nutritious meals, which leads to negative health consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated barriers to accessing affordable healthy foods, forcing many people to rely on processed and low-nutrient foods.

“The obesity epidemic places an unsustainable burden on health systems, especially in low- and middle-income countries — and COVID-19 has brought new urgency to the issue,” said Neena Prasad, MD, MPH, director of the Food Policy Program at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “It’s imperative that we continue to promote policies and strategies that reduce consumer demand for unhealthy foods and make healthier choices easier for everyone.”

“The ability for shoppers to quickly and easily discern which food and drink choices are healthier is an important piece of fighting obesity on a big scale,” added Tlaleng Mofokeng, United Nations special rapporteur on the Right to Health. “I urge governments to act on the body of evidence compiled in this guide to give people the tools they need to make healthier choices for themselves and their families.”

Thirty-six countries have implemented voluntary or mandatory interpretive labels on packaged food.

For more information, or to download a copy of the Front-of-Package Nutrient Labels guide, please visit www.vitalstrategies.org/resources/whats-in-our-food/.


Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomms@unc.edu.

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