What do we mean by freedom of food choice?: The link between nutrition labeling and human rights



Lea la versión en español de este blog aquí.


From the moment we leave our homes early in the morning, until we return at the end of the day, we may have more than ten opportunities or temptations to eat per day. The cultural signals used by advertising campaigns to celebrate fatty and sugary products are ever-present in our surroundings or in the screen of our devices. There is always a multitude of invitations to lure us into satiating our taste buds through these products.

Nowadays, modern societies meet their nutritional needs in the midst of a flood of ultra-processed foods and drinks in a wide range of flavors and colors at inexpensive prices. Since 1993, mounting evidence has proved that there is a link between these cheap calories and growing obesity rates and other diseases acquired by bad food choices, such as diabetes, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, among others. As a consequence, the turn of the century has brought new challenges for nutrition advocates, and for the very first time the number of obese and overweight people on the planet exceeded the number of the undernourished, which health scientists have called the ‘climate change of public health.’

Photo credit:  Dan Domme

Photo credit: Dan Domme

The influence of the free market paradigm on modern diets has given us a diverse imagination of our food choices. As Pamela Manson and Tim Lang pointed out in their most recent book, market theory has made us believe that “in consumer societies, informed choices are and can be made by educated consumers armed with full knowledge of what they buy.” However, evidence collected by public health scientists has shown that there is an imbalance between what we should know, and what we do know about each product that we consume. This leaves the role of shaping food choices to the food market. But should we leave the fox to guard the henhouse? If the answer is in the negative, how can we achieve informed food choices on a societal scale? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in order to shape food choices based on responsible health self-care, one of the actions that governments should take is to regulate the information available on food product labels based on two types of data: “nutrition labels” and “health claims”.  

However, the mere adoption of nutrition labelling rules has not been enough to show significant trends in consumer food preferences. Despite the increasing number of countries adopting nutrition labelling standards on pre-packaged foods during the last decade, in February 2015, The Lancet, in a study assessing the effectiveness of the current systems of labelling information, concluded that the measure was only useful for those groups of people who already have healthy food preferences. It was also found that they were difficult to understand or be interpreted correctly by consumers with lower food literacy.

In Chile, public health advocates reached similar conclusions and joined efforts with the Chilean authorities to implement a front-of-package warning label that is easy to understand for everyone. This came into effect in June 2016. The regulatory norms defined limits for calories, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium, according to the standards set by the WHO and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). The Chilean model proposes to be even more explicit than other systems of labelling, demanding that products that exceed these limits are required to have a front-of-package black and white warning message inside a stop sign that reads “HIGH IN” followed by CALORIES, SATURATED FAT, CALORIES, SUGAR or SODIUM, as well as “Ministry of Health” (see figure below).

Source:  WTO

Source: WTO

Despite the fact that the Chilean nutrition labelling system has been implemented just two years ago, there has been some evidence that this initiative has brought about positive outcomes in the short term. We need to wait at least until 2021 to accurately assess the impact of the warning labels on food choices and the public health outcomes in Chile. However, the press has reported that the food industry has been reducing the amount of salt, sugar, and saturated fats in products to meet the law's nutritional requirements. This is a positive result in the short term. This experience also has encouraged other governments, such as those of Colombia, Peru, Canada, and Brazil, to explore similar measures.

In the case of Colombia, on July 25, 2017, a bill on public health measures for the control of obesity and diet-related diseases was filed before Congress. The bill included a renewed nutrition labelling proposal modeled after the Chilean experience on the warning labels and was based on the human right to health and informed consent. Currently, the bill has been approved in its first political debate and it will need three further debates for full approval. It will not be an easy battle, considering that in 2016, the Sugary Drinks tax proposal (motivated by public health concerns) failed, in part due to deceitful interference techniques and lobbying by the soda industry in the political arena.

There are huge expectations on the effectiveness of front-of-package warning labels in producing informed and healthier food environments. The hope is that, as a society, we would be closer to becoming consumers armed with enough tools of knowledge to distinguish what we buy, what we eat, and what we drink.

Smart nutrition labelling should aim to have direct effects on consumer choices, and encourage people to ask “Where does my food come from?” before buying it, to favor eating real, healthier and fresher food that truly to nourish them. The Chilean nutrition labelling model has put the spotlight on the discussion on the human right to adequate food, as well as a people-centered approach that gives primacy on the right to informed consent on health over prevailing market machinations. Even though the expression “nutrition labelling” may seem too technical and too boring to discuss at first sight, the truth is that each of us eats and makes food choices on a daily basis. Therefore, it is important to insist to our governments that freedom of food choices be closely tied to our full comprehension of them, regardless of the labelling model adopted.


*Ana is a researcher at the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).

Featured photo: PercyGermany