Aubel Cerveza Especial (Chilean beer label)

Food Labeling in Chile: Works Great or No Effect?

The food policy spin machine was in overdrive a few years ago, promoting food labeling policies enacted in Chile. “Latin America’s war on obesity could be a model for U.S.,” gushed the Washington Post. Pointing to a new study in PLOS Medicine, Barry Popkin told the Post that the food labeling law in Chile was working great:

“Low-income mothers reported their kids were coming home from school and saying, ‘You can’t buy these foods with the warning labels.’ We saw large declines in the purchase of junk food.”

Debra Cohen wrote in U.S. News that “Chile has taken the lead in identifying and implementing obesity-control strategies that could prove to be the beginning of the end of the epidemic.” The U.S. should follow its lead, she said.

It turns out that there’s just one little problem with this declaration of success, though. Seven years after these laws passed, no effect on health outcomes is evident. None. In fact, obesity prevalence continues to rise unabated.

New Research Finds “Negligible Influence”

Since obesity prevalence kept rising after these labeling laws went into effect, we are grateful for new qualitative research to shed light on the reasons. Franziska Pfister and Claudia Pozas conducted interviews with four school directors, second graders, teachers, and food services staff. They also made documented observations in four primary schools of the Chilean city of Punta Arenas. Having this range sources for their observations allowed them to compare the different perspectives they found.

Writing in BMC Nutrition, they concluded:

“The Food Labeling and Advertising Law seems to have a negligible influence on young children’s diet and physical activity in the study region.”

In another new paper, Véronique Braesco and Adam Drewnowski offer a narrative review of research on front-of-pack nutrition labels (FOPNLs) and observe:

“Although FOPNLs have been associated with healthier food purchases, the magnitude of improvements was small and dependent on study settings. Any associated health effects were modeled rather than observed.”

Maybe Obesity Isn’t a Matter of Choice

For decades now, obesity prevention has failed to halt or reverse the rising trend in obesity prevalence. Some public health experts get red in the face insisting we must give these measures more time. Or maybe it’s simply unfair to look for an effect on health outcomes. Changing behavior is good enough.

But this is a serious mistake. Because the point of public health is to bring better health. Paternalistic control of behavior is not the goal.

So we need to come to grips with the fact that obesity is a biological problem triggered by an unhealthy environment. It’s not a matter of choice. Continuing to pound away, “educating” and “nudging” people, in hopes that they will stop making bad choices will continue to yield the same results. Nothing.

Better answers will lie in a fuller understanding of how the physical, social, economic, and food environment is promoting obesity.

Click here for the study by Pfister and Pozas, here for the review by Braesco and Drewnowski.

Aubel Cerveza Especial (Chilean beer label), photograph by Chilehistoria, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

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January x, 2023

2 Responses to “Food Labeling in Chile: Works Great or No Effect?”

  1. January 17, 2023 at 10:55 am, Allen Browne said:

    Science is a hopeful approach and should be attempted. Bias hasn’t worked and it makes sense that it doesn’t.


  2. January 20, 2023 at 12:07 pm, Richard Atkinson said:

    Hunger is one of the most disruptive conditions of man. Prescribing a state of perpetual hunger as a treatment of obesity is nonsense. As noted above, obesity is a disease of altered biochemistry and physiology. As such it should be treated like virtually every other chronic disease – with drugs. Thankfully we are starting to get drugs that are reasonably successful. Greater funding should go to drug development so we can eliminate the need for obesity surgery.