by Marion Nestle
Mar 14 2011

Latin America vs. soft drinks

Today’s New York Times has a story about how Mexico is trying to improve school food in an effort to help prevent childhood obesity.

By all measures, Mexico is one of the fattest countries in the world, and the obesity starts early. One in three children is overweight or obese, according to the government. So the nation’s health and education officials stepped in last year to limit what schools could sell at recess. (Schools in Mexico do not provide lunch.)

The officials quickly became snared in a web of special interests led by Mexico’s powerful snack food companies, which found support from regulators in the Ministry of the Economy. The result was a knot of rules that went into effect on Jan. 1.

“What’s left is a regulatory Frankenstein,” said Alejandro Calvillo, Mexico’s most vocal opponent of junk food, particularly soft drinks, in the schools. “They are surrendering a captive market to the companies to generate consumers at a young age.”

By all reports, schools in many Latin American countries sell candy and soft drinks in lieu of real food.  Kids pretty quickly get used to the idea that those foods mean lunch, and eating them is normal.  Never mind the effects of such diets on teeth—dental decay is increasing rapidly—and body weights.

By coincidence, I just received a paper from Brazilian investigators documenting the way soft drink companies are funding physical education activities in that country.  That’s one way to deflect attention from aggressive marketing in schools and other venues.

Last year, Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and Kraft reported rising profits from overseas sales.  With the U.S. market for their products flat or declining, companies are looking to developing markets for increased sales.  Obesity is sure to follow.

  • Has anyone ever done a financial analysis or social study on what people would spend their money on given more healthy choices (or no choices, as in schools not offering food at all?) Is there any kind of study out there? Or an analysis of what the spend is per capita on junk food or soda in particluar?

    The number one issue I ear from smokers these days is how expensive they are! I have long been a proponent of a soda tax, but my home state of New York got ‘lobbied out’ of that a few years ago. It is obvious that some people choose not to smoke (or smoke less) because of the cost of cigarettes. I wonder at what price does soda begin to lose it’s appeal to the general public? Has any research company done an analysis of projected intake of soda given price increases?

  • This article caught my attention this am as well, but for a different reason. What struck me is how sensible the Mexican stand now is on “junk” food. Specifically, allowing a moderate approach to inclusion of these items, which was, to this point successful, and certainly much more likely to be adhered to than an all or nothing approach.

    In the US, we preach moderation, (ie in the new dietary guidelines) and yet we ban trans fats, and make strong black and white statements about what can and can’t be served in schools. Our policy is rather inconsistent with our message, I’d say!

  • Well, well well…I lived in Mexico for a year, and this is the “colateral damage” from NAFTA!….Mexico is a great “market” for American goods…including our junk ….Even sports are sponsored by big food companies, any bodega has American junk with “spanish names” such as Sabritas, Maruchas, etc. Walmart is under the name of “Aurera”…..the Mexican government “gave” 24 farm lots to be used by Monsanto!! Do you know that during the “swine flu” epidemic, US “increased” pork sales to Mexico by 7% just in the first trimester that followed….????.
    All in the name of FREE TRADE!!!

  • Massively interesting article here – The UK is also heading up a huge movement to eliminate “bad junk food” from the school cafeteria menus. Children need to be educated as to why healthy food is good for the body, so that they can try understand the foundations of the program. You can’t impose such actions forcefully – Children will simply react negatively.

  • Here in Greece we also have a huge problem with childhood obesity. One out of three children in Greece is overweight or obese. There have been several efforts to phase out junk food from school kiosks (there is no lunch in Greek schools either) but unfortunately owners of these kiosks make more money selling junk food than fruit. On that note I would also like to mention that soft drink companies here in Greece (as in Brazil) also fund physical activities in order to deflect attention from their own product. For example Coca-Cola-HBC designed and implemented a comprehensive program of primary care in collaboration with the Greek Red Cross for residents of mainland and island Greece. Among the activities will include promotion of a healthy lifestyle (diet, physical activity), especially in children. Coca Cola in Greece has organized several other activities focused on schools and have the support of ministries, medical associations and universities. One of them called Join the Action was under the auspices of the Ministry of Health Welfare and the International Foundation of Olympic and Sport Education, which again basically focused on physical activity and involved the development of educational materials to be used in schools which covered over 32 teaching hours. The program trained more than 25,000 students and 1,250 teachers. Another Coca Cola program also included school visits and was under the supervision of the Ministries of Health and Welfare and Education, the Harokopio University (the only University in Greece providing a BS in Nutrition) and the Hellenic Medical Association for Obesity which involved over 7,000 students and 15,000 adults and children.
    I have a Greek blog, which deals with all these issues that are never discussed, unfortunately even though I am a dietitian I write anonymously as I would lose my job. I am including a link to my blog even though it is in Greek:, but whoever is interested can use google translate to get an idea of the content.

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