Food Freedom

Research Supporting Chile's Anti-Obesity Regulations Doesn't Tell Us if the Regulations Work

We still know very little about whether regulations meant to curb obesity actually do so.

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The black octagons are how you know it's yummy. Katharina Meyer/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

A host of anti-obesity measures adopted in Chile in 2016 are working, according to a new study by U.S. and Chilean researchers that was published last week in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition & Physical Activity. But that's only true if you define success down to a meaningless level.

The Chilean law, considered by many to be the world's strictest, was intended to combat high obesity rates in the country, where nearly one-third of adults and one-quarter of children are obese. It was championed by Chilean Senator Guido Girardi, a surgeon by training who's called food companies "pedophiles."

As the study details, the Chilean food law targets the marketing and sale of foods and beverages that are deemed high in calories, saturated fat, salt, or sugar. Foods deemed high in salt under the law, for example, must carry a front-of-package label announcing that fact. If that same food were also deemed high in sugar, say, then it would be required to carry a separate front-of-package warning. What's more, under the law such foods cannot be served in schools, advertised on television shows popular with children, or use marketing strategies that may appeal to kids. The rule applies only to packaged foods, and doesn't cover, for example, sales of fast foods or bread.

The study announcing the law as a success, meanwhile, is intended "to examine mothers' understanding, perceptions, and behaviors associated with Chile's food regulation using a qualitative approach." The study authors focused their research on mothers because, they note, mothers make food purchasing decisions and act as food gatekeepers. The qualitative study is based on the results of nine focus groups of mothers of children aged 2-14 in Chile. In total, the focus groups consisted of just 84 participating mothers. The focus groups were organized and divided by socio-economic status ("SES").

The study's authors, who express support for the Chilean law, were quick to tout the results of their research.

"This study shows that regulations really change how mothers think about and purchase food for their children," says study co-author Lindsey Smith Taillie, assistant professor of nutrition at University of North Carolina (UNC).

UNC's Barry Popkin, another co-author, says the "study, and others that follow, suggest that this cluster of regulations represents the first potential set of policies that may change food norms" and improve children's diets.

Despite those internal praises, the law's impact on obesity has been negligible thus far. Obesity rates actually rose in Chile during the law's first year in existence. (Supporters counter that it will take years for the law to reduce rates of obesity.)

Instead of pointing to actual health improvements, the greatest impacts the study identifies are that most mothers are familiar with the law and that very young kids seem to be impacted by classroom discussion of healthy foods and of lunchroom policies carried out under the law.

(The latter claim seems dubious. For example, the study concludes young kids support the regulations by noting that mothers "agreed that their children, particularly the youngest ones, had positive attitudes toward the regulation[.]" The study includes mothers of children as young as two-years old. I suspect it's more than a bit of a reach to claim babies understand or support any regulation.)

Other than those conclusions, though, the bar for what's perceived to be success seems rather low. In fact, several facets of the study raise some cautionary flags.

Right off the top, some of the authors' key takeaways appear to amount to little more than tautological gobbledygook. "Mothers declared that they perceived that the regulation was changing the perceptions, attitudes and behaviors toward healthier eating patterns," the study declares. Assessing how a person perceives their own and others' perceptions of a law seems several steps removed from policy analysis.

For every positive outcome of front-of-package labeling (e.g., that mothers generally understood that "the more labels, the unhealthier the product"), the authors found at least one negative (i.e., that mothers are confused about the specific basis for the front-of-package labels and were confused, too, about "what the label was suggesting").

Some mothers don't use the labels, the study reports. In particular, low-SES families—who typically suffer higher obesity rates—are less likely to use the labels. And many consumers only use the labels when deciding whether or not to buy a new food product, "which suggests that the impact on behaviors is less strong for products in which there is a consumer loyalty."

Some study participants found the labels "invasive," counterproductive, or otherwise negative, while others stated that the labels had become so ubiquitous as to be effectively invisible. In the words of the study authors, these mothers felt "the pervasive presence of them was overwhelming and may not end up contributing to better decision making." Some middle- and upper-SES mothers said the law stigmatized them. Some "expressed that they felt 'guilty' and 'bad mothers' if they did not send healthy snacks to school."

Parents of older students said their children often rejected the "healthier" foods now served in schools. One student, for example, told his mother he'd stopped eating at school entirely. Another reported that "the kids 'don't eat, they leave everything on the table.'" That raises the specter of increased food waste, a dramatic problem in America's public schools (and one I discuss at lengthy in my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us).

Other predictable problems arose under the law. "Some [low-SES] moms complained that their freedom to choose products for their children was diminished," the study notes, with "some saying that they had to stop giving their children 'junk food' for school snacks because those snacks could be taken away from their children at school."

The law has also faced open contempt from some of the businesses it regulates. Carozzi, a company sells the majority of its pastas, juices, and other food products in Chile, branded the law "an utter failure" last year.

"We now have a regulation that gives a false sense of security, and when time goes by people are going to notice that we're in the same place and will blame the food industry again," the head of Carozzi's Chilean operations told Bloomberg Radio last year.

The purpose of the Chilean food law is to reduce high rates of obesity in the country. The study published this month demonstrates that some consumers say the Chilean law has impacted their perceptions of the foods they and their families buy. It's unclear right now what, if anything, the latter has to do with the former.

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  1. “to examine mothers’ understanding, perceptions, and behaviors”

    Problematic much?

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  2. “The study includes mothers of children as young as two-years old. I suspect it’s more than a bit of a reach to claim babies understand or support any regulation.)”

    Many children already make important decisions, give them the right to vote.

    1. Yeah, this a lot. My memories of what I knew and did, and my perception of what other people nowadays know and do, is that until at least the mid-20s, people’s perceptions of consequences are so self-centered as to be useless as public policy. Everything people do begins with very self-centered, very immediate goals: how do I fix my car, where do I live, what work can I get? It takes experience to build up enough self-assurance in the path ahead to start to consider the world around you. I frankly discount all opinions voiced under, say, 25, which have any bearing on anybody else’s life.

      You’ve got to be some kind of special derp to tout pre-school opinions as support for public policy.

      1. You’ve got to be some kind of special derp to tout pre-school opinions as support for public policy.

        +1 Straw Ban.

      2. “You’ve got to be some kind of special derp to tout pre-school opinions as support for public policy.”

        From an election tipping standpoint, I’m not sure which states they expect to tip Democrat because kids are piling into the polling station either.

        I understand the greatest predictor of party affiliation is still the parents’ party affiliation. It probably just means that whatever a state is already, it’ll become more so. If California becomes more Democrat, so what?

        Maybe it makes a difference in Texas if Democrats have more kids than Republican parents, I guess?

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  3. I am more and more inclined to view the ‘Obesity Epidemic’ as a temper tantrum thrown by the Beautiful (thin) People because society’s preferred body type is moving away from them.

    Then there’s the simple fact that diet is something hat governments are horribly unsuited to oversee. It is endlessly varied, depending on individual circumstances and needs, and Governments are endlessly bad at subtlety, nuance, and tact.

    1. “I am more and more inclined to view the ‘Obesity Epidemic’ as a temper tantrum thrown by the Beautiful (thin) People because society’s preferred body type is moving away from them.”

      It’s also fundamentally embarrassing to the progressive world view, when poor people being too fat is a problem. They really do want us to believe that poor children are going to bed hungry because of Ronald Reagan.

  4. “Foods deemed high in salt under the law, for example, must carry a front-of-package label announcing that fact. If that same food were also deemed high in sugar, say, then it would be required to carry a separate front-of-package warning. What’s more, under the law such foods cannot be served in schools, advertised on television shows popular with children, or use marketing strategies that may appeal to kids.”

    I see this as like anti-smoking laws–prohibiting smoking in restaurants, labeling, restricting advertising, etc. I suspect all of those things contributed to falling smoking rates. The question is whether our qualitative preference for freedom is such that we wouldn’t prefer a more free society, even if it means more smokers or, in this case, that there are more fat kids.

    Even if it’s a successful campaign, we’re talking about using the government to inflict one group’s qualitative preferences on another. If they can prove that they’ve been able to do that successfully, then that still leaves open the question of whether the legitimate purpose of government is to inflict our qualitative preferences on each other.

    1. “that still leaves open the question of whether the legitimate purpose of government is to inflict our qualitative preferences on each other.”

      It’s not.

      1. Exaaaaactly.

        And yet they seem to think showing they can do something wins the argument.

  5. Obviously the solution is to tax excess body weight.

    1. A tax on your BMI, measured once a year on your birthday, would have far more effect than these stupid food laws. Better yet, do it once a year, randomly, with little notice, to preclude crash diets.

      But this would make it too obvious that the nannies don’t really like people, and the ADA lawsuits would smother it.

      1. the ADA lawsuits would smother it.

        Oh, there’d be a tax credit for the truly hormone-afflicted.

      2. “But this would make it too obvious that the nannies don’t really like people, and the ADA lawsuits would smother it.”

        We have a “problem” with obesity among the poor, and that tax would probably be denounced by the New York Times as objectively racist, too.

        1. The poor would get *paid* for losing weight.

          1. I’m not sure shaking people down because of their income level is fundamentally less authoritarian than shaking people down because of their BMI, but it’s certainly less socialist.

            1. That came out wrong.

              Taxing BMI = less socialist.

      3. “A tax on your BMI, measured once a year on your birthday…”

        Can they do it before my birthday. My BMI probably goes up after my free birthday meal at Denny’s.

    1. The new rule would steer federal family planning funds under Title X to anti-abortion and faith based groups.

      Emphasis added. There’s your problem.

      1. Not the George Waffen Bush EO that started this nationalsocialist black hole? Viz: Sec. 2. Amendments to Executive Orders. (a) Executive Order 13198 of January 29, 2001 (Agency Responsibilities With Respect to Faith-Based and Community Initiatives), Executive Order 13279 of December 12, 2002 (Equal Protection of the Laws for Faith-Based and Community Organizations)… Then woopsie! Hey, the market is no longer functioning but asset forfeiture looting is doing fine in 2008.

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      Jussie is disappointed you haven’t contributed to his legal defense.

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      1. Not even that site stands with Jussie anymore, as they’ve changed the recipient of the money! The racist conspiracy is even deeper than we thought!!

  6. Wait a minute. Isn’t this Chile where laissez faire Friedman economics rule? Didn’t Milton make a deal with the devil dictators to insure that greedy profiters would never have to face regulations of any kind.

    1. Conquests Laws:

      1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
      2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
      3. The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

  7. I don’t care if regulations make us all fit supermodels, don’t take away my fucking liberty to eat whatever I want.

  8. First they came for the fat peoples…

  9. It was championed by Chilean Senator Guido Girardi, a surgeon by training who’s called food companies “pedophiles.”

    I definitely want someone making decisions for me who engages in that kind of overwrought rhetoric. /sarc.

  10. Guido Sarducci ought to know about pederasts. Outside of L.A., East Germany and Papal States, Chile was the hotspot for pederasts in the 1980s and still is. But what’s that got to do with groceries?

    1. Your knowledge of pederasts is impressive.

  11. The Socialist states cannot afford their free health care schemes when everyone needs constant medical care because they’re getting fatter.

    The Socialist states need thin healthy people to die for Socialism by the time they’re 35.

    Young people who pay into the system and then die suddenly allows all the Party fatcats to live off the young for decades.

  12. “This food is high in fat, salt, and sugar, which is why it’s delicious. Buy more!”

  13. Whatever happened to the pizza labeling controversy. They wanted to have takeout pizza labeled with nutritional content. The whole thing being absurd because there are thousands of possible pizza combinations.

    I suppose the whole thing got dropped hopefully.

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  16. Why don’t they do like cigarette packaging and print pictures of big fat asses on everything?

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  18. Blaming food for fat people is like blaming humanity for violence. It’s reductive and meaningless.

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