Published On: March 26, 2015

Brazil Leads in Food Guidelines

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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” such 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 at the end of 2014.

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The report was released in English recently in Washington at a conference on new US 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 the presentation of the report 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 is therefore 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.” Obesity is already rising in Brazil, Monteiro noted.

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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.”

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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.

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.”

[This article was written by Jerry Hagstrom and appeared on the National Journal website.]

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