Focus on NCDs: Studying food industry's impact on obesity in Latin America

November / December 2017 | Volume 16, Issue 6

In Guatemala, a girl wearing backpack and school uniform crosses street toward market covered in ads for Pepsi and other product
Photo courtesy of Violeta Chacon

A Fogarty-supported project in Guatemala is studying the
impact of food industry advertisements on obesity among
children.

By Karin Zeitvogel

In Latin America, obesity is a major contributor to chronic illness. A Fogarty Chronic, Noncommunicable Diseases and Disorders Across the Lifespan (NCD-Lifespan) grant focused on the issue in Guatemala, where fellow Violeta Chacon set up studies to determine if food marketing strategies might be contributing to the problem.

Chacon's data, which she analyzed during a six-month NCD-Lifespan fellowship at the University of Michigan, showed that the food industry did indeed use child-oriented marketing strategies to get kids to buy unhealthy snacks. Chacon also found that the closer a food shop was to a school, the more child-oriented ads there were promoting unhealthy snacks. Noting that around a third of school-age children in Guatemala are overweight or obese, Chacon and her co-authors called for a ban - similar to tobacco advertising restrictions - on snack food ads in shops near schools.

In another study, Chacon and colleagues examined fast-food restaurants' marketing strategies designed to increase consumption. They found that toy giveaways and price discounts were a factor and also discovered that nutritional information was not always available in the restaurants. They recommended public health advocates consider a comprehensive approach to encourage healthier choices, including policies requiring fruit or vegetable side dishes as options, accessible and easy-to-read nutritional information, and restrictions on toy giveaways.

"These studies are an illustration of how building local research capacity can have an impact beyond a country's borders," said University of Michigan professor Dr. Eduardo Villamor, co-lead with Dr. Ana Diez-Roux of the NCD-Lifespan program that supported Chacon. "This research is clearly relevant to Guatemala but also to the U.S. and elsewhere, where companies deploy similar strategies to attract kids to unhealthy snack foods."

Villamor started the Fogarty-supported training program in 2012 when he recognized that chronic diseases and their risk factors, such as obesity and overweight, were expanding quickly in Latin America, while the number of local researchers and training opportunities remained stubbornly small. His program included journal clubs, which involved individual study of papers presented and one-on-one discussions with a senior investigator.

Of the more than 300 people who have been trained through the program, four received graduate-level instruction, about 20 benefited from short fellowships, and the rest participated in webinars or week-long workshops. Many of the trainees now work in academic institutions or in a research capacity in Central or South America.

"I think that supporting training is one of the most cost-effective investments and activities that Fogarty can focus on," Villamor said. "By integrating research components into training initiatives, that makes them stronger and produces long-term dividends."

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