Food labeling in Brazil
The food labeling scenario
The right to adequate and clear information about the products available on the market, with correct specification of quantity, characteristics, composition, quality and price, as well as the risks they present, is provided by a Brazilian federal law since 1990, the Consumer Protection Code. Adequate food labeling regulation is essential to guarantee this right and is an important tool to engage consumers with healthier food choices.
Despite the federal law, the Brazilian food labeling regulation does not offer enough protection for consumers. There are specific regulations on the general food labeling, mandatory nutritional information, nutritional claims, among others, and more recently approved the mandatory information on allergenic foods. However, according to Brazilian studies, the labeling information is still not well understood by consumers, and it is very common to find it misleading or a lack of information on food labels.
The improvement of the food labeling regulation in Brazil is not only necessary for the accomplishment of consumers rights, but it is a strategy aimed to cope with the rising trend of non-communicable diseases (NCD) which are, altogether, the major causes of mortality and morbidity of the Brazilian population. The Brazilian Institute for Consumers Defense - Idec is an independent non-governmental organization that has among its main objectives to influence the improvement of the food labeling regulation in Brazil.
Consumers behaviour on food labeling
In order to fill the knowledge gaps and increase public awareness on food labeling improvements, Idec conducted a study to evaluate the awareness, behavior, perception and preference of consumers with regard to food labeling according to the presence of NCD. This study was funded by the International Development Research Centre – IDRC.
The study was conducted in May 2013 with 817 women from four State capitals in Brazil, representing four of the five geographical regions of the country. The sample had the same socioeconomic distribution of the population of each city and was divided in two groups: ‘with NCD’ if she or someone in her home has a NCD or ‘without NCD’, for the opposite situation.
We have found major problems in consumers’ relationship with food labeling, including the understanding and the use of nutritional information. Regardless of the city, NCD diagnosis, family income, education or family composition, the understanding of nutritional information was low.
Regarding the habit of reading food nutritional labeling, 46% of women have stated that ‘sometimes’ they read nutritional labeling. Even though nutritional information was considered highly important for food purchase, less than half of women knew that nutritional labeling is mandatory by law.
Most respondents (almost 80%) believe that nutritional information in a larger font size than that of the nutritional table, with colors and at the front of the package, such as the traffic light labeling (a proposal to simplify the nutritional information at the front of packages), would make them more or much more understandable. According to 59% of respondents, colors on nutritional labels would encourage a change in their food consumption habits.
Perspectives and challenges
The survey results reinforced the need for improvements on food labeling information in a way that the information be simpler and clearer and without misleading the consumers. Food labeling regulation in Brazil is an extremely complex and diffused process, of primary responsibility of the National Health Surveillance Agency – Anvisa of the Ministry of Health. However, other Ministries and even the National Congress have rules governing this matter. Also, many of the labeling regulation were harmonized in the Mercosur, so that any regulation change should be renegotiated between countries.
This tortuous regulation process only benefits the transnational food companies, so called ‘Big Food’, in Brazil and other Latin American countries. These companies are resistant to changes on food labeling that highlight the unhealthy nutritional composition or characteristics of ultra-processed products or limit the use of aggressive marketing strategies to children.
Food labeling improvements are already on the agenda of the Ministry of Health and the revision of the nutritional labeling is on course. However, it will be necessary to overcome the existing barriers so that the Brazilian consumers can fully exercise their right to choose and also have the right to adequate and healthy food guaranteed.
- Brazil. Federal Law n. 8.078, September 11, 1990. Consumer protection Code. Available at: (in Portuguese).
- Câmara MCC, Marinho CLC, Guilam MC, Braga AMCB. [Academic production on food labeling in Brazil]. Rev Panam Salud Publica. 2008;23(1):52–58. Available at: www.scielosp.org/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1020-49892008000100007 (in Portuguese)
- Martins APB (Org). Food labeling and chronic diseases: consumers’ perception in Brazil. Instituto Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor – IDEC. Cadernos IDEC. 3rd volume. 2014. Available at: www.idec.org.br/uploads/publicacoes/publicacoes/rotulagem-de-alimentos-e-doencas-cronicas.pdf (in Portuguese and in English)
- Monteiro CA, Cannon, G. The impact of transnational ‘Big Food’ companies on the South: a view from Brazil. Plos Medicine, 9(7), 2012. Available at: http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1001252