In 2016, Chile instituted a nationwide change in the way junk food was marketed to the public. There were new restrictions on how unhealthy products could advertise (i.e., no more fun cartoon characters on cereal boxes), certain foods were banned from being served in schools, and new labels—literally shaped like black stop signs—were placed on the front side of many beverages and snacks to indicate which products were high in sugar, calories, or saturated fat. These measures are a lot more stringent and straightforward than some other recent high-profile attempts to change consumer behavior through food labels, such as equating calorie counts to exercise and pairing sugary treats with grim imagery to deter unhealthy choices. And now, four years later, The New York Times reports that Chile’s new law has been remarkably effective at curbing the public’s junk food consumption.
A new paper has just been published in the journal PLOS Medicine titled “An evaluation of Chile’s Law of Food Labeling and Advertising on sugar-sweetened beverage purchases from 2015 to 2017: A before-and-after study.” (What the title lacks in snappiness, it makes up for in descriptiveness!) In the 18 months after Chile’s new food law went into effect, it reports, sales of sugar-sweetened drinks dropped a whopping 25%, and sales of diet soda, bottled water, and fruit juices containing no added sugars rose 5%.
“An effect this big at the national level in the first year is unheard of,” lead study author Lindsey Smith Taillie told the Times. And it goes beyond the national level: Peru, Uruguay, and Israel have since adopted food labels akin to the Chilean stop signs, and Brazil and Mexico are in the process of designing their own.
Only time will tell what the long-term impact will be on Chileans’ overall health. But as nutritionist Barry M. Popkin told the Times, even more sweeping regulations might be needed to see that kind of nationwide change. “Right now people are just focused on sugary beverages, which is a tiny part of the problem,” he said. “This is just the beginning of a fairly profound change to encourage healthy eating.”