Snack healthy or unhealthy, but snack: the snack barrier to increase fruits and vegetables consumption in Latin America.

Despite the increasing recognition of relevance and the commitment to promote fruits and vegetables (FV) consumption in Latin-America and worldwide as a main marker of health and adequate eating, a very low consumption persists, followed by several barriers including the advance of competing foods that undermine good eating practices.

Obesity-related diseases and obesity epidemic have reached almost homogenously most countries in most continents, people from all ages, genders, and socioeconomic status1, and the need to stop the advance and reverse this is becoming more pressing year by year. The source of these problems include high energydense foods, such as sugary breakfast cereals, cookies, fast-food and sugary drinks; all of which can act as causes of weight gain, overweight, and obesity2, which in turn leads to recommendations for restriction.

On the other hand, it is recommended that menus should preferably include low energy-dense foods such as FV as probable protectors against weight gain, overweight, and obesity, several types of cancer, and other non-communicable diseases2. However it is noteworthy that the protective effect from FV against obesity is achieved when FV are able to dislocate high energy-dense foods and sugary drinks from the daily menu of consumers. That clearly indicates that the promotion of FV consumption cannot be conceived apart from the regulation of competing foods.

Competing recommendations

One of the reasons for the consumption of FV to be far below the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation, is the existence of other recommendations that are pushing the consumption of other foods – which are high energy-dense, and high in sugar, salt and fats – rather than FV. While on one hand the WHO recommends the daily consumption of at least 400g of FV3, on the other hand, food manufacturers recommend push the consumption of high energy-dense, salty and sugary foods and drinks by means of advertisements and marketing practices, without advising any restriction.

In Latin-America the absence of regulations to restrain or reduce the demand for unhealthy foods is markedly worse than in the European Union and North America. Multinational food companies’ act much more aggressively in emerging markets, such as the ones found in Latin-America, and the main reason is the remaining major share of traditional foods in these populations’ diet. In Brazil, for instance, only one fifth of population’s diet come from ultra-processed products (ready-toeat or ready-to-heat)4, so from the big snack industry perspective there is a major opportunity for their products. This contrasts to other countries where this share is already high and there is a small margin available. In the Latin-American scenario any sort of regulation that could impede the advance of ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat products over traditional foods including FV is not welcomed by the manufactured food industry.

Snack healthy or unhealthy

Big snack companies care about their images and do not want to be associated with a problem such as the obesity epidemic. These companies have now started investing in the reformulation of their own products, reducing sodium, sugar and fats and identifying them as healthier alternatives. This approach can be potentially harmful if not associated with regulatory measures for the commercial promotion of these products, since the issue is not only about food itself but about diet and ways of eating.

Advertisements of ultra-processed products such as a cracker named as ‘healthier’ because of salt reduction, can promote the  overeating of this product, hence promoting an unhealthy eating of a so called ‘healthy’ product. Even the healthy image of FV is being used to subvert the unhealthy image of ultra-processed products. Freshfel Europe have shown in the ‘Where is the fruit?’ study that half of the 207 products analysed had no fruit, or else contained less than 10 per cent fruit5. By adding very little percentage of fruits to the product, but highlighting the image of fruits on packaging, companies are able to able to provide the product with a healthier status in the eyes of consumers6.

The discussion on the reformulation of products and the definition of healthier and unhealthier ultra-processed products provide an ongoing focus on the snack way of eating. What matters most for the big snack industry is for people to snack and even help them to have ‘healthier’ snacks since they keep snacking. While this discussion goes on and on, the scope is moved away from really healthy foods such as FV, and from healthy ways of eating such as sharing the same food with family or friends. Instead of investing time and money promoting fresh and minimally processed foods and healthy ways of eating, the focus is driven to the transformation of unhealthy food products into healthier products, keeping eating practices locked inside the snack world.

  1. Chopra M, Galbraith S, Darnton-Hill I. A global response to a global problem: the epidemic of overnutrition. Bull World Health Organ 2002; 80:952-8.
  2. World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. Washington DC: AICR, 2007.
  3. World Health Organization. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. Expert Report on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases. WHO Technical Report Series 916. Geneva: World Health Organization/Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations; 2003.
  4. Monteiro, CA, Levy RB, Claro RM, Castro IRR, Cannon G. A new classification of foods based on the extent and purpose of their processing. Cad. Saúde Pública 2010; 26(11): 2039-2049.
  5. Freshfel Europe. Where is the fruit? Freshfel Europe, 2010. Obtainable at http://www.freshfel.org/docs/press_releases/Freshfel_Europe_-_WHERE_IS_THE_FRUIT.pdf
  6. Gladwell M. Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. New York: Back Bay Books, 2005.