HAVING easy access to information about nutritional facts and ingredients of packaged food items will enable consumers to make healthier food choices and potentially reduce the prevalence of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and obesity in Jamaica.
One of the tools used to inform consumers about product content is front-of-package labelling (FOPL), which indicates that an item may contain excessive amounts of sugars, total fats, saturated fats, trans-fats, and sodium.
Speaking in an interview with JIS News, minister of state in the Ministry of Industry, Investment and Commerce, Dr Norman Dunn pointed out that the Caribbean has a high incidence of NCDs and obesity.
“Therefore, it's important that governments, and our Government in Jamaica in particular, seek to provide our consumers, in the most appropriate way [with] information that they can use to make their buying choices much better than it is and, therefore, assist in reducing this great burden of NCDs and obesity that we have,” he said.
NCDs are those diseases that are not transferable by contact but rather developed through family genetics, degenerative changes, or unhealthy lifestyle habits.
These conditions 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 — according to the Ministry of Health and Wellness in 2018.
Beyond the toll on health, NCDs impose a major economic burden, with data from the Ministry of Health suggesting that it will cost the country some $77 billion over the next 15 years to deal with treatment and loss of productivity associated with diabetes and cardiovascular diseases alone.
The Government, said Dr Dunn, recognises the importance of diet in combating NCDs and the role that FOPL can play in assisting consumers to make better food choices.
He noted that, worldwide, several FOPL models are used, namely, the high-in octagon model used in South America; the facts upfront system in the United States of America; the multiple traffic light system, United Kingdom (UK); the nutri-score system, the health star rating system, and the reference intake system, among others.
“So, these are some of the systems that have been developed across the world to try to assist consumers in handling the decision-making aspect of what it is that they take into their bodies,” Dr Dunn said.
The Government is looking at various models as it moves closer to making FOPL mandatory in Jamaica.
A recent study on FOPL in Jamaica has found that octagonal warning labels perform best in helping local consumers make healthier food choices.
Consumers showed that the octagonal warning equated with their highest chances 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.
Once the Government decides on a local solution, and a policy is finalised, food manufacturers will be required to adjust their labelling so that it offers consumers the requisite information that they would need on the product.
“One of the things that we are hoping… is that manufacturers would provide information on the content, and it is specific in nature — the content of sodium or salt, fat, saturated fat, trans-fat and sugar,” Dr Dunn said.
He said that other Caribbean countries are exploring implementing FOPL policies, which will have an impact on manufacturers who export their goods regionally.
“We are hoping that multiple FOPLs will be available and they can choose the one that best fits, not just their manufacturing cycle but how they go about presenting their packaging. We are also hoping that by doing so we are able to not tie ourselves into a particular corner so that our exports are not put into a very disadvantageous position because it does not fit into an FOPL of an importing country,” he noted further.
Meanwhile, Dr Dunn is encouraging manufacturers to support the Government's drive to reduce the incidence of NCDs and obesity.
“FOPL is a matter of urgency. We need to be able to communicate the information in the product in a very timely manner to our consumers. NCDs are not waiting on anyone, and obesity is not waiting on anyone and therefore, we have to be judicious in what we do and ensure that we can, in fact, get this new direction out to our consumers in a timely manner,” he says.
“We have to address the problem of NCDs and obesity, and we must be able to communicate that to the consumer so at least they can make the best choices possible — and the time for that is really now,” he added.