Health backed food warning labels in 2022, now eliminated

The food warning label, which the Ministry of Health ordered to be eliminated by circular last June, in contrast, received the full support of the institution a year ago.

It was then Vice Minister Alexei Carrillo who supported frontal warning labeling during the presentation of a study that compared ways to warn the Costa Rican population about processed foods with higher levels of calories, sodium, fat, or sugar.

“Ultra-processed foods are high in calories and high in free sugars, unhealthy fats and salt, and low in dietary fiber, which increase the risk of obesity and other diet-related diseases.

From a human rights perspective, Pre-labelling food is a really important tool to protect public health. and consumers. Unhealthy food is one of the main modifiable risk factors associated with non-communicable diseases and obesity,” said Carrillo.

According to an analysis presented on June 16, 2022, black warning octagons or front markings conveyed information best.

This study was prepared by three institutions: the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the Costa Rica Saludable civil society association, and the Costa Rican Institute of Education and Science in Nutrition and Health (Inciensa), a division of the Ministry of Health. .

At the time, Carrillo insisted on the importance of this type of warning, which is already in use in countries such as Chile, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, and which arrived in Costa Rica with said stamps.

He even indicated that the ministry supports the introduction of this product labeling at the national level, which requires the introduction of a bill in the Legislative Assembly. In 2018, the initiative was considered but was shelved.

“Nutrition prelabeling has been proven to help consumers make healthier food choices. The introduction of pre-labeling of food products has a positive impact on public health, human quality of life and the economy.

“From the Ministry of Health, we want to call for such initiatives to have greater support and achieve the goal of improving the health and well-being of the country,” said Carrillo, who rose to the position of minister after the departure of Jocelin Chacón in February 2023.

In June, with the appointment of Mary Munive as minister, Carrillo, as well as Carolina Gallo, resigned as deputy ministers in this portfolio.

Decision of the Ministry of Health

The only products with this distinctive mark in Costa Rica are those imported from countries whose sanitary regulations allow the consumer to know directly which products contain more of these elements (fats, sodium, sugar, etc.) than recommended by PAHO and other international organizations such as the Codex Alimentarius.

In Costa Rica, this labeling was not approved for national products, so the Ministry of Health ordered in a circular to prohibit the placement of warning labels on imported goods, so they must hide them.

According to a press release from Minister Muniwe, Costa Rica is governed by Central American rules, which it must adhere to. Current national and Central American regulations do not set specific parameters that determine when a food contains a “high” or “excess” amount of any important nutrient, such as calories, fat, sugar or sodium.

Since it is not defined at the Central American level how much is excessive, the front marking seen in other countries is not possible.

The hierarch assured that they had begun an analysis of the current situation in order to update it.

How was the study in question conducted?

A Ministry-supported study last year included 1,358 people recruited from 12 supermarkets in the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM). Only those over the age of 18 living in Costa Rica who purchased food or non-alcoholic beverages and who could read were included.

Participants were randomly divided into five groups: a control group that rated images without frontal food labeling, and four experimental groups that rated images with one of the four rated labeling systems shown in the image below.

Each group was shown a different category of food: yogurt, crackers, milk chocolate, and breakfast cereals. They were chosen because they are in high demand throughout the country.

For each product category, he was asked which product he would buy. Participants also had the opportunity to respond that they would not buy anything.

In addition, for each of these categories, they had to indicate the least harmful option among the three products in each of the four categories.

Finally, participants were asked to indicate whether the product contained sugar, sodium, fat, saturated fat, or trans fat in excess of those recommended for a healthy diet.

Compared to the control group, the octagons were 202% easier to identify the least unhealthy food, 111% the most unhealthy, and 277% the best food to buy based on nutritional recommendations.

clearer information

Roxana Salazar, a lawyer from the Healthy Costa Rica Association, and Carla Barquero, a food technologist from the same organization, agreed that information about imported products that they are forced to hide is based on international PAHO recommendations that equally affect health. people, no matter where they live.

For Salazar, labeling on the front is vital for the consumer to make an informed decision.

He recalled that no one forbids people to use these products. They probably already know that chocolate has a lot of fat and sugar, but they will still eat it. According to him, the main thing is that they know what it contains.

“It’s true that there is information about nutrition, but it’s hard to read, it’s hard for one, he doesn’t know if what he eats is more than what is recommended for someone like him. As a consumer who is not a nutritionist, I need something easy to understand to make decisions, and what we have with current labeling is not,” she concluded.

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