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SA set to carry warning labels on 'junk food'

Packaged food that is high in salt, sugar and fat may soon have to carry warning labels, according to a top health official. “We hope to introduce regulations about front-of-pack warning labels by late this year or early next year,” said Lynn Moeng, chief director of nutrition in the Health Department in a Health-e News report. “This will assist people to know what is in packaged food because most people don’t know what they are eating,” said Moeng. “The problem will then be how to deal with the food that isn’t packaged. People are excited to buy those combos – the chicken, chips and a fizzy drink – without knowing what is in them.”

The report says she was speaking at the launch of the #Whatsinmyfood campaign, organised by the Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA), which aims to educate ordinary people about the unhealthy ingredients lurking in processed food

The report says poor diet is driving obesity in South Africa, which is the fattest nation in sub-Saharan Africa with soaring rates of diabetes, 240 people have strokes every day and a high rate of heart attacks – mostly linked to poor diet and being overweight.

HEALA executive director Sibongile Nkosi welcomed Moeng’s announcement, saying that the current ingredient labels on processed food were confusing. “The food industry uses many different words for sugar and salt to conceal what is in their products, so clear warning labels will make it easy for people to identify unhealthy food,” Nkosi is quoted in the report as saying.

“We have launched our campaign because people have the right to know what is in the food they eat. Think of the mother in a squatter camp preparing a lunchbox for her child. She just goes to the nearest shop and buys polony. She doesn’t have time to read what’s in it. We want to help her to identify unhealthy food, but also get shops to stock the healthy food grown by local small-scale farmers.

“HEALA’s campaign comprises of advertisements to be flighted on TV and radio warning people about high levels of salt, sugar and fat in cereal, fruit drinks, polony and white bread.”

The report says also speaking at the launch, Professor Sue Goldstein from Wits University’s School of Public Health who warned of the “corporate determinants of health”. “The tobacco, alcohol and food industries all use similar tactics to keep information about their products from people,” said Goldstein.

In 2016, Chile ruled that food high in added sugar, saturated fat, kilojoules and added salt had to display a black stop sign on the front of their packages. Any food with these warning signs also cannot be sold in schools or advertised to children under the age of 14.

The report says a recently released study to evaluate how mothers of young children had responded to the new policy found that it was changing what mothers were buying.

“Many mothers described that their children requested healthier food and used the stop signs as shortcuts to distinguish healthy from unhealthy food choices. As a result, many mothers said that they have changed the foods they purchase for their children,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Teresa Correa, from Diego Portales University in Santiago.

Moeng said in the report that government was using both regulation and engagement with the food industry to address obesity.

Background: In line with calls for action from international health organizations, Chile implemented in June 2016 a set of regulations to tackle the obesity epidemic. The new regulation includes the mandatory use of front-of-package warning labels on packaged foods/beverages high in energy, sugars, saturated fats and sodium. Additionally, such foods cannot be sold nor offered in daycares/schools and cannot be promoted to children under 14yo. The law is targeted to children; thus, this study examined mothers’ understanding, perceptions, and behaviors associated with the regulation one year after its implementation, using a qualitative approach.
Methods: Nine focus groups of mothers (7–10 people each) of children (2-14yo) were conducted in July 2017 in Santiago-Chile. They were stratified by socioeconomic status (SES) and children’s age. Macrocodes were developed by three researchers, combining an iterative process of deductive and inductive thematic analyses. Quotations representing each category were selected.
Results: Mothers understood the new regulation as a policy to fight child obesity and were aware that products with more labels were less healthy than products with fewer labels. Attention and use of labels in the buying decision-making process ranged from participants who did not pay attention to others who relied on them as a quick shortcut (mostly from middle and upper-SES); many mothers indicated changing their purchase habits only when buying new products. Mothers declared that young children accepted school environment changes while teens/preteens resisted them more. Many mothers agreed that schools have become key promoters of food behavioral change. Mothers were less aware about the food marketing regulations. Mothers declared that they perceived that the regulation was changing the perceptions, attitudes and behaviors toward healthier eating patterns.
Conclusion: After the first year of implementation, the regulation was well known by mothers of diverse SES and different children ages. The degree of use of warning labels was heterogeneous among participants, but most of them agreed that their children, particularly the youngest have positive attitudes toward the regulation and have become promoters of change in their families. Many mothers also expressed that they perceived an important shift toward healthier eating, which may lead to a change in eating social norms. This information contributes to better understand how regulatory actions may influence people’s consumer behaviors.

Teresa Correa, Camila Fierro, Marcela Reyes, Francesca R Dillman Carpentier, Lindsey Smith Taillie, Camila Corvalan

[link url=""]Health-e News report[/link]
[link url=""]International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity abstract[/link]

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