OXFORD, Ohio– The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recently reported that 47 million people suffer from malnutrition in Latin America and the Caribbean, while at the same time 23 percent of adults in the region are obese. FAO, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL) have all voiced concern over the threat of malnutrition in Latin America.
As processed foods and drinks high in sugar, salt and fat become more accessible to families living on very limited incomes, poverty and obesity become more and more interconnected. Typically malnutrition brings up images of extreme hunger, jutting bones and swollen bellies. Yet malnutrition in the other direction due to overeating of non-nutritious food is also threatening Latin America’s health.
Many children in Latin America today grow up immersed in a consumer culture that overwhelmingly pushes unhealthy options the hardest. Large snack food and soft drink companies are omnipresent in homes, streets and shops around Latin American cities. Juan Rivera of Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health admits that some mothers in Mexico, when weaning their babies, substitute milk for soda as early as three months. It makes sense, then, that 7.1 million Latin American children under the age of 5 years old suffer from chronic malnutrition, while 3.8 million are considered overweight.
Adiposity can lead to a variety of non-communicable diseases including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and some forms of cancer. In Mexico, where obesity levels have caught up with US standards, 70,000 people die of diabetes every year. Obesity costs Mexico $6 billion in 2008, and that number is expected to double by the end of this decade.
Governments around the region are realizing the financial and social costs inherent in an obesity epidemic. Mexico has imposed a tax on the sale of sugary drinks. Chile now requires food producers to place warning labels on foods high in sugar, salt and calories. Several countries have prohibited snack food companies from targeting schools and children specifically.
Yet government policies that seek to regulate health and nutrition options typically draw significant backlash from large food and drink companies. In fact, similar efforts in the United States have failed repeatedly, including the banning of super-sized soft drinks in New York and labeling requirements of genetically modified foods.
The experimental policies popping up throughout Latin America, however, are promising. If both hunger and obesity are to be reduced, a balance between big business interests and consumer sovereignty must be reached in a way that makes healthy options more appealing and accessible to people, especially those living in poverty.