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Growing up I watched the annual Christmas adverts made by a popular global sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) brand with amazement. Their trickery added to the festive magic and convinced me that Christmas would not be complete without their products being part of the family feast.

As an adult, I know better. Their not-so-sweet intentions of making a profit at the expense of people’s health leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. As a dietitian I have spent countless hours counselling some of South Africa’s overweight and obese, of whom 31% are men and 68% women – advising them on how to lose weight and avoid falling victim to the country’s top noncommunicable killer diseases such diabetes and heart problems, which are rapidly growing and posing a health threat to our society.

As a nutrition policy advocate, I have read numerous reports and research which show how the very powerful and well-resourced food and beverage industry will stop at nothing to market their products, intentionally targeting children.

Research has found that SSB manufacturers have spent close to R4-billion on advertising in six years, with most of these adverts targeting children and family viewing times. Even though these SSB manufacturers have signed various self-regulation pledges to do otherwise, nothing has changed. Children are highly susceptible to adverts for unhealthy foods. As a mother, I have experienced the power of cleverly child-crafted adverts. Nobody can blame a child for choosing the treat advertised by a celebrity or cartoon over their mother convincing them about healthy food.

For far too long the industry has been given free rein to convince us consumers that these manufactured products are what we should be eating.

As families and society we all experience the constant bombardment of advertising – from billboards on busy highways and local shops and schools covered with branding, to soundbites on radio and constant promotions at supermarkets. We don’t even get a break when we log on to social media, where we see influencers promoting unhealthy products. The cravings we get from these adverts are difficult to escape. Our food environment is also flooded with cheap products that are energy-dense and nutrient-poor, making it very difficult to eat healthily. In the past 20 years, due to the commercialisation of food production and aggressive marketing, South Africans have started consuming more and more ultraprocessed products that are putting their health at risk, affecting their lives and placing a burden on our health system.

Realistically, unhealthy food products will always be around. The food and beverage industry is a business that needs these products to make money. However, for far too long it has been given free rein to convince us consumers that these manufactured products are what we should be eating. This has to stop.

Warning labels

The government has a responsibility to protect the health and nutrition of its citizens, as outlined in the Constitution. This can be done by enforcing national regulations that can protect households and individuals from predatory marketing practices. Among them is the proposed Draft Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs (R3337), which was gazetted for public consultation on 21 April 2023. The last day for public comment is 21 July 2023.

In this draft, the Department of Health puts forward the introduction of mandatory front-of-package warning labels to be placed on packaged foods and drinks that are high in added sugar, salt and saturated fat or contain any artificial sweeteners. As a further proactive measure to especially protect our children from the harmful effects of unhealthy food marketing, the department has included marketing restrictions of all products carrying these labels. This regulation is a step towards helping consumers understand what is in the food we eat so we are better equipped to achieve our consumer responsibility of making healthier food choices for ourselves and our families.

Similar mandatory regulations have been implemented in many countries. In Chile, the combination of front-of-package warning labels, marketing restrictions and banning school sales of these products has led to a drop in the purchase of unhealthy products with no effect on employment, wages or profits for the food and beverage industry.

As a parent, I welcome any help in ensuring our children are protected from the pervasive marketing of unhealthy food by big food and beverage companies. To comment on this draft regulation go to Amandla.mobi and join me in supporting this crucial regulation. DM

Angelika Grimbeek is the Policy and Research Manager at HEALA. She is a registered dietitian that has a Master of Science in Community Paediatrics, giving her the skills and passion needed to be a nutrition advocate fighting for Food Justice in South Africa.

This oped was published in the Daily Maverick on the 19th of July 2023