Taxes on sugary or fat-filled foods and bans on selling toys with Happy Meals and big sodas have come under fire in the US, with opponents saying they will infringe on personal rights and liberties and invoking the dreaded “nanny state.”
In contrast, in Brazil, the government has introduced laws to protect and even improve its traditional food system. The goal is to keep transnational “Big Food” and Big Snack” companies (PepsiCo, Nestlé) and their ultra-processed food items from pushing aside well-established food systems and traditional dietary patterns that are better for people’s health.
Not only are such foods (as a recent JAMA study suggests) contributing to increases in obesity and chronic diseases including diabetes. Big Food and Big Snack are encroaching on ”public health and public goods by undermining culture, meals, the family, community life, local economies, and national identity,” write Carlos Monteiro and Geoffrey Cannon, from the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition of the University of São Paulo, in a PLoS Medicine that argues in favor of Brazil’s laws.
Monteiro and Cannon argue that foods including “packaged, long shelf-life snacks designed to displace meals” aggressively promoted by Big Food and Big Snack are not simply bad for our health, but for the fabric of society. Food and diet need to be thought of in terms of their connections to people’s well-being, the family, friendship, culture, sustainable livelihoods, environmental preservation, national identity and sovereignty; as tightly woven into society.
Brazil poses an interesting case in point as, based on an analysis of dietary practices over the past forty years, it still retains “many long-established food systems and dietary patterns,” showing influences from native populations, Portuguese colonizers and African slaves. Meals that are “prepared and eaten by the family at home” and are eaten together remain “an integral part of the Brazilian way of life.” Such applies even for the midday meal — the very meal that tends to be consumed outside the home for many Americans and often at a desk, in a car, while standing.
In contrast, it was generations ago that the US’s and UK’s traditional food systems were displaced. In the US, Canada and the UK, ultra-processed products have provided some 60 percent of total calories for the past two decades. In contrast, consumption of ultra-processed products in Brazil is 28 percent, far less than that in large, industrialized nations — but such foods made up less than 20 percent of calories in the 1980s in Brazil.
Here are some of Brazil’s regulations for fighting Big Food and Big Snack.
1. Access to “adequate healthy food” has been a basic human right under the Brazilian Constitution since 2010, along with the right of access to health care, education, work and social security.
2. All Brazilian children are entitled to one meal a day, by law.
3. At least 70 percent of the food that goes to schools must be “fresh or minimally processed.”
4. A minimum of 30% of the food supplied to schools has to be sourced from local family farmers.
Monteiro and Cannon argue that, through such measures, Brazil is resisting, with success, the efforts of transnational corporations to weaken its citizens’ health and to adversely alter Brazilian culture.
Does Brazil’s example provide, as the authors state, a “basis for the design of rational, comprehensive, and effective public health policies and actions designed to protect and promote nutrition in all its senses” — an argument for governments taking a bigger role in citizens’ diet, health and lives?
Is access to health food a basic right?
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Photo by Jed Sundwall