Health warnings on food packages likely

Packaged, bottled and canned foods sold on supermarket shelves here could soon carry health warnings on the amount of sugar, salt and trans fat contained in these products.

Barbados and sister Caribbean Community (CARICOM) country Jamaica undertook at a recent conference to develop food and nutrition labelling systems that are easy to understand and can serve as benchmarks for the region.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) sub-regional meeting on Strategy for Health-Related Laws: Implementing Fiscal and Regulatory Policies to Prevent Obesity in Children and Adolescents ended last Friday.

PAHO’s Advisor on Chronic Diseases for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean Dr Tom Kanda said the two countries were expected to come up with a food content disclosure formula, “which is user-friendly for all consumers and hopefully we can standardized such labelling among CARICOM countries”.

Dr Tomo Kanda
Dr Tomo Kanda

Health academics and officials have often complained that labels on prepared foods, especially imported items, are difficult to understand and are not being tested for accuracy of the information.

The issue was raised at a recent lecture on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by Director of the Chronic Disease and Research Centre Dr Alafia Samuels who outlined the complications that Caribbean countries faced in this regard.

“You are not in that much control of what you’re getting to eat,” Dr Samuels said as she pointed to an unhealthy food chain involving Europe, North America and the Caribbean.

Dr Samuels explained that some foods being sold in the Caribbean were prohibited in North America, while further up the chain products used in North America are sometimes banned in Europe “because Europe has a higher standard in terms of healthy food.

“So as an island state, in the Caribbean close to north America, dependent on some of these imports, sometimes we’re not even sure what it is we’re importing because we don’t have the capacity to test,” she revealed.

The former Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of the West Indies gave as an example the many packaged products which purported to contain zero trans fat. She said it was impossible for Barbados and the Caribbean to verify this information because “we don’t have the capacity in the Caribbean to test for trans fat”.

Regarded as more damaging to the body than natural animal fat, trans-fat is artificial and is formed through a food-process called hydrogenation. Food manufacturers use oils, which are hydrogenated to various levels, to improve the texture, shelf life, and flavour stability of foods.

PAHO’s Dr Kanda explained that food labelling was being tackled because “we all know that eating healthy, engaging in physical activity and coping with stress are important factors to achieve ultimate health goal.

“However, if our living environment does not allow us to access such healthy choices and environment, it would be difficult] to reach our health goals. It is beyond individual responsibilities, it should be protected by legal framework.”

Dr Kanda has spoken in the past of the contribution of high consumption of sugar, salt and trans fat and alcohol, as well as smoking and a lack of physical exercise contribute to non-communicable diseases.

NCDs cause 65 per cent to over 80 per cent of all deaths and 62 per cent to over 80 per cent of premature adult deaths in persons 30 to 69 years of age, the hemispheric health agency said.

Dr Kanda said that cardiovascular disease and diabetes were the major causes premature NCD-related deaths, followed by cancers. 

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