December 4, 2019

New food marketing regulations in Chile have effectively reduced the use of child-targeted packaging on unhealthy food products, suggests a new study co-led by a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researcher.

As part of a comprehensive effort to reduce obesity, Chile now restricts child-directed marketing for products that exceed certain thresholds for added values of sugars, saturated fats, sodium and/or calories. Child-targeted strategies are still allowed for products that do not exceed these thresholds.

Dr. Lindsey Smith Taillie

Dr. Lindsey Smith Taillie

In a study published recently in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD — assistant professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health — and collaborators from UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media used pictures of cereal packages taken from top supermarket chains in Santiago and examined the differences in packaging before and after Chile implemented stringent food marketing regulations in 2016.

Working with Francesca R. Dillman Carpentier, PhD, W. Horace Carter Distinguished Professor of journalism and media, and Fernanda Mediano Stoltze, a doctoral student of journalism and media and a research assistant with the Gillings School’s Global Food Research Program, Taillie found that before Chile implemented the Chilean Food Advertising and Labeling Law in 2016, 43% of cereals that exceeded nutrition thresholds used child-directed strategies on their packaging. After the food regulations took hold, that percentage fell to 15%.

Fernanda Mediano Stoltze

Fernanda Mediano Stoltze

Dr. Francesca Dillman Carpentier

Dr. Francesca Dillman Carpentier

Additionally, the researchers found that 30% of the cereals that did not exceed nutrition thresholds used child-directed strategies after the food regulations were implemented, compared to 8% beforehand.

“After Chile restricted junk food marketing to kids in 2016, there was a substantial decrease in the prevalence of child-directed marketing strategies on unhealthy breakfast cereals in the marketplace,” Taillie says. “However, it is not clear whether these changes were due to companies adjusting their marketing strategies or reformulating their products to avoid the regulation.”

Obesity is increasing rapidly worldwide, along with a sharp rise in people’s intake of sugary drinks and energy-dense, ultra-processed food — or “junk food.” Childhood obesity is a strong predictor of adult obesity and other health, social and economic consequences. Chile in particular has very high rates of obesity and junk food intake, at levels similar to the United States.

Food marketing has been identified as a contributing factor in childhood obesity, prompting the World Health Organization to recommend restricting child-directed marketing for energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods and beverages — particularly products high in saturated fats, sugars and/or salt. While the United States and many other countries have implemented voluntary food marketing guidelines, Chile has implemented some of the most stringent food marketing regulations in the world.

Taillie and Carpentier, along with other colleagues, have been collaborating since 2015 to study the effects of food marketing on nutrition and health in Chile and several other countries, including the United States.

“We were looking for a scholar with the expertise and background to help us evaluate Chile’s package of policies, and in particular their marketing policy, as well as someone who could do longitudinal quantitative surveys,” Taillie says. “Francesca was the perfect fit and has now become an integral part of our team. In addition, our team greatly benefited from having Fernanda, who previously worked at the Chilean Ministry of Health when they designed the regulation. She not only led this particular effort but has provided invaluable insight into real-world policy making around food marketing regulations. The results of this research are now being used across the region and globally to inform the development of new policies on child-directed junk food marketing.  This work just goes to show how truly interdisciplinary collaborations can result in research that has major public health and policy impact.”

“The Chilean efforts in marketing, using warning labels on unhealthy food, and implementing related laws as part of a very comprehensive approach to prevent obesity and noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and hypertension has been completely copied by Israel and partially duplicated in Peru and Uruguay,” adds Barry Popkin, PhD, W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of nutrition at the Gillings School. “A strong law has been passed in Mexico, as well, and 4-5 other major countries are in the process of adopting the Chilean approach.”

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