A cursory walk around the supermarket shows that South African shops are inundated with pre-packaged foods that are processed with high levels of added sugars, salt, and saturated fats. South African’s who want to make better health choices are thwarted by incomprehensible and food labels. Nutrition illiteracy and the availability of these foods is wreaking havoc on the health of South Africans.
More than six out of 10 women above the age of 15 in South Africa are overweight or obese, putting them at risk of developing life-threatening illnesses, shows data from the most recent South African Demographic and Household in 2016. Overall, the World Health Organisation estimates that almost one in three South Africans were obese in 2016. About 13% of children in South Africa are also over weight – more than twice the global average.
Despite there being a strong need for increased nutrition literacy and easy to read labels that warn consumers that some of the food they are eating can be harmful to their health, recent research by PRICELESS SA at the University of Witwatersrand School of Public Health found that there is no evidence that voluntary actions by the food and beverage industry can safeguard public health.
Why government needs to step in
According to the findings, “[w]hen governments do allow (voluntary actions) VAs and other forms of self-regulation to replace mandatory regulatory interventions, robust monitoring is required to ascertain whether these VAs are effective in improving food environments.
Despite clear, research based evidence that solid financial and regulatory interventions work well to improve food environments by limiting the amount of unhealthy foods flooding the food system, the food and beverage industry has hit back in favour of voluntary actions.
This is why The Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA) is calling for easy to read Front-of-pack labels. “High in” front-of-pack warning labels, which clearly identify products that are high in things like sugar, salt, saturated fat — what experts call “nutrients of concern” — are the most effective at helping consumers spot unhealthy foods.
“The dominance of these unhealthy products in stores, incomprehensible food labels and aggressive advertising by the food industry undermine the consumers’ ability to choose healthier food options. FOPL will help raise awareness on unhealthy food, make it easy at a glance warning of unhealthy products and impower consumers to make informed decision on food they purchase,” explains Nzama Mbalati HEALA’s Head of Programmes.
At least 10 countries, including Brazil, Mexico and Chile, have already switched to front-of-package labelling or will in coming years. South Africa desperately needs to join this link. HEALA is asking concerned parents, caregivers, and ordinary citizens to join our call to The National Department of Health (NDoH) to open public comment for front-of-pack labels.
For more information, visit www.whatsinmyfood.org.za to get more information on how you can be a part of the cause, or add your voice by sending a WhatsApp to: 079 751 9751.
The Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA) is a coalition advancing food justice in South Africa.
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Communications Manager: HEALA