Julia Rowe Porter, epidemiologist with the Ministry of Health, says with the country battling to reduce the prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), it is just a matter of time before consumers get additional help in making healthy food choices through the introduction of front-of-package labelling (FOPL).
Non-communicable diseases — ailments that are not transferable by contact but developed through family genetics, degenerative changes, or unhealthy lifestyle habits — are the leading cause of death, with statistics indicating that an estimated seven out of 10 Jamaicans died from the four major NCDs — cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic lower respiratory disease — in 2018. FOPL is one solution being scouted by health officials and industry players as it indicates that an item may contain excessive amounts of sugars, total fats, saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium.
"There is evidence that front-of-package-labelling works because persons need to be aware of what they are eating in those packaged foods. The ministry is clear that we want to have it. The issue is really what type because there are different types of presentations with front-of-package labelling and we have to in terms of what we decide on, determine what is best for Jamaica," Rowe Porter told Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange forum.
A recent study on FOPL in Jamaica found that octagonal warning labels are best in helping local consumers make healthier food choices. Consumers said the octagonal warning presented them with the highest chance of correctly identifying when products were excessive in sugars, sodium, or saturated fats; led to them correctly identifying the least harmful option; and resulted in them choosing the least harmful or none of the products more often.
"There is data that is very clear regarding a certain type of front-of-package-labelling and we need to work with all our stakeholders to settle on the best type. I think it's really just a matter of time before we select the best type, but we need it. It's a matter of empowerment and education," Rowe Porter told the meeting.
"When you have it on the front versus the back it puts it squarely in your line of vision whether or not this is a healthy option for you, we are going there, we are getting there hopefully sooner than later," she added.
In the meantime, family physician Dr Jacqueline Campbell is emphasising that Jamaicans need to be taught how to read food labels in order to make better choices.
"I have so many patients that almost on a daily basis I have to tell them that you see this soda that you love and you drink two or three of them for the day, it's 17 teaspoons of sugar that you are drinking. So we [at the medical practice] have all the soda bottles and we actually put the right amount of sugar in [and place it on display], so if you see soda bottle X you will know that this is actually 17 teaspoons of sugar and we show the patients and they are usually like 'what? I am drinking so much?'," Dr Campbell shared.
"They consume that [many bottles] because it's cold and you have somebody who might be drinking two or three [bottles] for the day and 17 [multiplied by] three is a whole heap of teaspoons of sugar per day. That [level of education and explanation] is going to help persons to make the correlation for themselves why their sugar levels are so high," she told editors and reporters.
According to the family physician, once individuals come to recognise the importance of portions a change in behaviour will follow.
"That is the key thing for the patients, when you [show them] what the serving size is, then they realise that bottle [of beverage can be shared for two persons and more]. That is an 'aha' moment and we need to have more 'aha' moments for the patients so that it's not just an intellectual conversation about this disease…where it doesn't really sink in," she said.
The Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association (JMEA) has, in the meantime, said while it supports the thrust of the ministry in this respect and supports the drive to have FOPL for the food and beverage sectors, the models of major trading partners should be included in the options available.
It has, however, taken issue with the PAHO-led campaign which is pushing for the Caribbean region to adopt the octagonal warning label system first introduced by Chile in June 2016. The JMEA, in noting that that system utilises high-in black warning labels, shaped like stop signs, for processed, pre-packaged food and drinks exceeding PAHO Nutrient Profile Model criteria limits for sugar, sodium, saturated fats, total fats and trans fats, pointed out that while that model is supposedly being considered by several countries, very few countries have introduced this type of warning label.
In pointing out that Jamaica sells many products through major trading partners such as the United States, neither that country, Canada or the United Kingdom uses the Chilean model among others.
It said evidence shows that although the Chilean model has been shown to change consumption, there has been no published evidence that it has changed the NCDs outcome.