Mexico wages a battle for sugar. In a world where the rate of obesity and diabetes have tripled in 30 years and diseases related to being overweight kill millions of people each year, countries are taking steps to regulate the food and ultra-processed industries. This is the case of Mexico, which approved a reform to the General Health Law in 2019 to change the labels of products with a high content of calories, sugar, sodium and saturated fat. The regulation has generated discomfort among companies and chambers of commerce in the affected sectors. In response, a war over sugar consumption has been unleashed, raging in advertising, the courts and on social media.
“Mexico has had a very profound transformation in the availability and advertising of these foods in recent decades and that has generated a change in diets,” says Simon Barquera, head of the Research Area in Nutrition Policies and Programs at the Institute. National Public Health and one of the main promoters of the new rules of frontal labeling. This change in consumption that the doctor talks about has resulted in high rates of diabetes, mortality from chronic diseases, overweight and obesity. In 2021 alone, more than 140,000 people died in the country from diabetes, the third leading cause of death, according to official data.
The Government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador ordered four years ago that the packages carry a front label with large black stamps that offer more nutritional information about food. Currently, the country leads the OECD ranking of obesity, ahead of the United States, and 12.4 million people live with diabetes, almost 10% of the population, which places it in sixth place in the world, for below Brazil, according to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF).
The Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN) sent to the plenary session the resolution of three amparos against the labeling, filed by Herdez, the Barrilitos and Santa Clara soft drinks, owned by Industria Mexicana de Coca-Cola. In response to labeling, the National Chamber of the Sugar and Alcohol Industry (CNIAA) has promoted the campaign since 2019 Let’s talk about sugar in which the consumption of cane sugar is promoted as a “100% natural” food. To do this, among the images of the campaign, several Mexican athletes have been hired to be the face of sugar consumption, a message that health specialists consider “irresponsible” and “problematic.” Among them are the swimmer Nuria Diosdado, the hammer thrower Diego del Real or the gymnast Rut Castillo, sponsored by the sugar industry in the last Pan American Games.
The amounts of sugar that an elite athlete can consume, due to its high caloric burn, are much higher than those of an ordinary citizen. “It is worrying to see a message contrary to a public health policy that is endorsed by the World Health Organization and UNICEF,” says Simon Barquera. Among these recommendations is the maximum consumption of 12 tablespoons of sugar per day, which represents 50 grams, about 194 calories. The doctor points out that those 12 tablespoons are often contained in a single energy or sugary drink. The CNIAA in its billboards says that “cane sugar provides 15 calories of pure and natural energy in each tablespoon.”
“Sugar is a traditional Mexican product that we have used for the last 500 years,” defends Humberto Jasso, president of the sugar chamber. Jasso opposes the “demonization” that cane sugar is undergoing and denounces that from the Government it receives the same treatment as tobacco, alcohol or other sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup. “What has happened since the Industrial Revolution is that sugar has become a very cheap, subsidized ingredient that has been added to processed foods to make them very palatable for people to like and end up generating a certain addiction. It is no longer just a culinary ingredient”, replies Dr. Barquera and remembers: “That it is natural does not mean that it is good”. Jasso responds: “Sugar does not cause obesity or diabetes,” he blurts out and refers to the campaign he promotes: “Obesity and diabetes are the consequence of a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors, so it is not can be attributed to the consumption of natural sugar”.
Barquera does not entirely agree with this statement: “Sugar is doing us tremendous harm and is harmful to health at the levels at which it is currently consumed,” he says. At the moment in Mexico there is no regulation on the use of amounts of sugar in food, the industry is responsible for it. “Currently we consume up to five or six times more sugar than recommended by the World Health Organization,” says the doctor. A person with diabetes has a high level of glucose in the blood, either because her body does not produce enough insulin or it does not respond correctly to this enzyme, which is necessary to process sugars. “The human body does not tolerate an excessive amount of glucose and a series of metabolic disorders are generated,” says Barquera and continues: “Having high blood sugar levels causes the body to react because it is producing a lot of insulin, and What insulin does is help this sugar to be released and activates the mechanism for sugar to be converted into fat”, he adds.
“Entire families are becoming impoverished by diabetes and that impacts the loss of productivity and growth in our country,” says the researcher who assures that treating the consequences of these diseases costs the Public Health System billions of pesos . “Every year in Mexico there are 40,000 deaths associated only with the consumption of soft drinks. It is an epidemic, ”he assures. From the sugar industry they point out that the regulation has not served to stop the cases of diabetes and obesity in the country.
With this reform, Mexico has become the fourth country in Latin America to implement warnings on food and non-alcoholic beverage labels, after Chile approved similar legislation in 2016, Uruguay in 2018, and Peru published a Manual of Advertising Warnings. Meanwhile, it will be the Supreme Court that determines how the sugar war in Mexico ends.