In what may be the most powerful attack on junk food published by any government in the world, Brazil is urging its citizens to avoid such "ultra-processed products" as chicken nuggets, potato chips, and soft drinks.
"Because of their ingredients, ultra-processed products—such as packaged snacks, soft drinks and instant noodles—are nutritionally unbalanced," says the new book Dietary Guidelines for the Brazilian Population.
"As a result of their formulation and presentation, [ultra-processed products] tend to be consumed in excess, and displace natural or minimally processed foods. Their means of production, distribution, marketing and consumption damage culture, social life and the environment," continue the guidelines, which were developed with the support of the Pan American Health Organization and published by the Brazilian Health Ministry on Oct. 5. They were released in English in Washington on Friday at a conference at George Washington University on new U.S. dietary guidelines.
The Brazilian guidelines have international importance because they mark the first time a developing country appears to be trying to stop a change in consumer behavior before the modern processed-food industry dominates its food purchasing and eating patterns.
Carlos Monteiro, a University of São Paulo professor of nutrition and health who led the technical team that developed the guidelines, said in his speech at GW that 70 percent of Brazilian food still comes from raw or minimally processed foods.
But Brazil is a country of 200 million consumers, the fifth most populous in the world, and a vast potential market for processed food as its population grows more prosperous and urbanizes.
"The golden rule" of the guidelines, Monteiro said, is "always prefer a variety of minimally processed foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals to ultra-processed foods."
The big problem with ultra-processed foods, Monteiro said, is that they interfere with the consumption of healthier food. If someone eats chicken nuggets, that person will not eat freshly prepared chicken, he said, and someone having a soft drink will not drink milk at that meal.
Monteiro's intellectual contribution to the field of dietary guidelines is the term "ultra-processed foods," which he defined in 2011 in World Nutrition, the journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, as "ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat 'fast' dishes, snacks and drinks [that] are typically energy-dense, depleted of nutrients, and fatty, sugary or salty."
The guidelines differentiate between "ultra-processed" and lightly processed foods by urging Brazilians to "prefer water, milk and fruits instead of soft drinks, dairy drinks and biscuits," not to "replace freshly prepared dishes (broth, soups, salads, sauces, rice and beans, pasta, steamed vegetables, pies) with products that do not require culinary preparation (packaged soups, instant noodles, pre-prepared frozen dishes, sandwiches, cold cuts and sausages, industrialized sauces, ready-mixes for pies)," and to "stick to homemade desserts, avoiding industrialized ones."
"This looks like we are against the food industry, but we are not," Monteiro said. "Most of the foods we recommend have some degree of processing," he added.
The Brazilian food industry protested the new guidelines, but the government published them anyway, Monteiro said. Family farmers are backing the guidelines because they will stimulate demand for their products.
Monteiro acknowledged that the international image of Brazilian agriculture is one of vast fields of soybeans and sugar cane, and he acknowledged that Brazil exports a lot of soybeans that are used as animal feed and cane sugar that is used in processed foods in other countries. But he pointed out that Brazil also produces the rest of the foods in any normal diet, and that many of those foods are produced on small farms that the Brazilian government wants to thrive.
One American food lobbyist suggested that it is "disingenuous" for the Brazilian government and academics to warn people against foods they cannot yet afford. Brazil still has a lot of poverty, but the government is addressing hunger through its "Fome Zero" program that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva started in 2003 to make sure the poorest families get food and their children go to school. Obesity is already rising in Brazil, Monteiro noted.
The guidelines acknowledge that maintaining traditional food preparation will be difficult as both men and women work in cities. The guidelines encourage "all household members, men, women and children, to join in acquiring, preparing and cooking meals and to support the tradition of freshly prepared meals as part of the national social and cultural patrimony."
Meanwhile, the U.S. departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture are preparing to write a new set of dietary guidelines that are scheduled to be published in September 2015.
A dietary-guidelines committee composed of nationally recognized experts in the field of nutrition and health is considering proposing that consumers should take into consideration whether the foods they buy have been produced in a "sustainable" fashion, which the U.S. food industry fears might raise questions about whether its production methods contribute to climate change.
At the GW conference, former Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who is now the executive director of the GW Sustainability Collaborative, noted that the House version of the fiscal 2015 Agriculture appropriations bill contains a provision that says the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee believes a sustainability provision would not be based on science and expects Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to reject any sustainability provision. Merrigan said that if that provision stays in the final appropriations bill it would make Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell "very cautious, very anxious" about including it.
With a political climate like this, it maybe very difficult for U.S. officials to be as bold as the Brazilians in giving the American people advice on what they should eat.
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.
This story was originally published in the November 19, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as Junk-Food Rebellion.