Food Policy

Mexico May Slap Silly Warning Labels on 'Unhealthy' Foods

Warning labels on subjectively “unhealthy” food haven’t taken hold in this country. But they’ve swept through Latin America in recent years.


Last week I returned from a wonderful (if too brief) vacation in Loreto, Mexico, a gorgeous colonial-era town that sits on the Sea of Cortez, about three-quarters of the way down the country's Baja California peninsula.

I returned to Mexico for the same reasons many Americans do: kind people; sunny, warm weather; beautiful beaches; a slower, better pace of life; and inexpensive, world-class food and drink.

It was only when I returned to the United States that I learned Mexico is on the verge of adopting a misguided scheme that would force food manufacturers to add warning labels on packaged foods that contain subjectively high levels of sugar, sodium, and saturated fats.

Mexico's lower house passed the bill unanimously this month—despite the fact the bill doesn't even stipulate "what the new labels will look like." Nevertheless, it's expected soon to pass out of the Senate and to be signed by the country's president, who's endorsed the bill.

Not surprisingly, food makers oppose the measure.

"This hides information," says Jaime Zabludovsky, president of ConMexico, an industry group. "It doesn't tell you what the level of key nutrients is, how much sugar, calories, sodium or fats." 

Perhaps these warning labels should come as little surprise. After all, Mexico adopted a soda tax several years ago. And Mexicans, like their American cousins to the north, are increasingly obese

While Mexico's soda taxes appear to have lowered soda consumption slightly, they—alone or in tandem with any other policy—are unlikely to impact obesity rates there any time soon, if at all.

A recent Borgen Project headline touts Mexico's soda tax thusly: "How the Soda Tax in Mexico is Reducing Obesity." 

But here's the accompanying article's best case for how that tax is reducing obesity in Mexico:

Since 2014, the sales of sugar-sweetened beverages have dropped throughout Mexico. Sales dropped by 5.5 percent the first year. By the second year, sales were down by 9.7 percent. The sales of untaxed beverages increased by about 2 percent. However, the calorie intake of the average person has remained unchanged.

Unchanged, or worse? The obesity rate in Mexico, a new study indicates, continues to grow. That same study also indicates nearly two in three obese Mexicans want to lose weight and recommends "improved education, prevention, and management"—not taxes—as tools to combat the trend.

So why food warning labels? As with soda taxes, there's little or no evidence that adopting food warning labels will help reverse current obesity trends.

Other countries in Latin America have adopted food warning labels of their own in recent years. In 2016, Chile became the first country to implement packaged-food warning labels. Peru followed Chile's lead last year.

Leading advocates for food warning labels and taxes—who, coincidentally, happen to be many of the most prolific scholars publishing research promoting the purported wisdom and efficacy of food warning labels and taxes—signed an open letter last year hailing the Peruvian government for adopting the measure. Signers include Barry Popkin—who's also been involved in actual food policymaking in Chile, Mexico, and elsewhere.

The best thing supporters such as Popkin appear able to say about the Chilean law's impact to date is that consumers there "understand the regulation very well." That, I noted last year, isn't good enough.

As I reported earlier this year, there is no published evidence to date that Chile's food warning labels have reduced obesity. Obesity rates actually rose in Chile during the law's first year in existence. Mexico's soda tax, too, seems not to have delivered on the promises of its supporters. There's no evidence to date that shows soda taxes reduce obesity.

Worse still, food warning labels and taxes might give rise to some unintended consequences.

"Processed food and drinks are popular there (and in other developing nations) because a disastrous sanitation system means fresh stuff has to be vigorously cleaned/cooked to avoid food-borne illnesses," says Reason's Mike Riggs, who visited Mexico City in 2017. "Packaged stuff may not be good for you, but it lets people eat on the go without risk of getting violently ill."

Riggs is right.

"[I]n the 1990s," the Washington Post reported earlier this year, "Mexico had had a cholera epidemic and consumers were leery of drinking tap water. People started buying bottled water—but if soda was even cheaper than bottled water, why not opt for the more flavorful beverage?"

I typically avoid soda altogether, though I did drink a few Cokes while I was in Mexico for this very reason.

"Obesity is a real problem," I wrote in 2016. "Food taxes are not a real solution to that problem." Neither are warning labels. Not that it should matter. Such policies, as I've noted many times, are patronizing, elitist, regressive, and fly in the face of food freedom. Activist researchers and policymakers would be wise to reconsider their approach given these facts.