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FAQs for “Changes in the amount of nutrient of packaged foods and beverages after the initial implementation of the Chilean Law of Food Labelling and Advertising: a nonexperimental prospective study,” which was published in PLOS Medicine July 28, 2020.

Who are the UNC authors of this study?

UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Barry Popkin, PhD, W. R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor, and Lindsey Smith Taillie, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition, are both co-authors on the paper and part of the Global Food Research Program (GFRP) at UNC. They are working in partnership with researchers at the University of Chile. The GFRP is a program of the Carolina Population Center.

What was the aim of this study?

Our aim was the evaluate the changes in the amounts of nutrients that are disease-linked  – such as added sugars, sodium, saturated fats and excessive calories – in packaged products in response to Chile’s landmark 2016 law requiring manufacturers to place warning labels on foods high in these harmful nutrients and prevent them from being marketed to children. Our research team tracked nutrients in 4,000 packaged foods and beverages available in supermarkets and candy stores in the Chilean capital Santiago before the implementation of the law and one year later.

What are the findings?

The study found significant reductions of sugar and sodium in products that had been previously high in those nutrients: most carbonated and noncarbonated sugar-sweetened beverages, milks and milk-based drinks, breakfast cereals, sweet and savory spreads, sweet baked products, cheeses, ready-to-eat meats, sausages and soups. The prevalence of products for sale with warning labels that were high in sugar decreased from 80% to 60% and such products that had been high in sodium decreased from 74% to 27%. Few products reduced saturated fats.

How are heavily processed foods linked to obesity and other chronic diseases?

There is one major NIH run random controlled trial and dozens of cohort studies that show that consuming excessive highly processed (also called ultra-processed) foods is linked with increased risk of obesity, and all the major chronic diseases. For example, due to increased palatability, a diet of these foods will increase dietary intake by over 500 kcal per day, as compared to individuals consuming a diet with real foods and beverages.

What surprised you about these findings, or do you think will surprise others? 

This is the first phase of four increasingly stringent phases. The local and global food companies were able to reformulate quite quickly, which shows the technology to cut these key nutrients of concern exists, but that regulations were needed to make them be utilized. In addition, the results led to a much higher level of reformulation than we expected.

What value does this paper add to the conversation surrounding food marketing?

To date, many scholars have pushed many different kinds of food-labeling systems for the front of packaging, but the impact on reformulation has been minor. This shows that this particular kind of warning label is the best system for front-of the-package food labeling, if the goal is to meet the WHO guidelines by cutting sodium, sugar and saturated fats added to most processed foods and beverages.

How might other countries use the results of this study?

Other countries can follow Chile’s lead, and the lead of countries who are doing the same, to start using these kinds of warning labels.

How does the Global Food Research Program’s evaluation of these policies promote public health?

Our goal is to the reduce intake of unhealthy foods and improve the diets of populations, particularly, low income ones across the globe.