Can Brazil win the fight against junk food? A Q&A with Bridget Huber

When Brazil released its new dietary guidelines last year, they were celebrated by food and nutrition experts around the world. Simple and holistic, they didn’t dwell on calories or grams of fat, but instead called for real meals, made with sustainable ingredients grown on family farms, and cooked (and savored) with friends and families. A year later, reporter Bridget Huber headed south to learn more about the guidelines, and the broader food reforms that had been enacted in Brazil and throughout Latin America. She found a country—and a region—fighting on multiple fronts against the rise of obesity and the “ultra-processed” foods that are the leading culprit in that rise. FERN’s Kristina Johnson spoke with Huber about what she described as a “laboratory” for the types of reforms activists in the U.S. dream about. You can read “Slow Food Nation: How Brazil challenged the junk-food industry and became a global leader in the battle against obesity” at The Nation’s website or at thefern.org.

Q: Tell me about food in Brazil. What sets it apart?

In a word, diversity. Brazil is so enormous and so diverse geographically, racially and culturally that there are a lot of distinct food traditions. When I ate with people in the  Amazon region, for example, there was lots of fish, and açaí pulp was super common — generally eaten savory and sprinkled with manioc flour. But then in the coastal parts of the state of Bahia, in the northeast, there’s a cuisine that was created by Africans brought to Brazil as slaves and their descendants. It uses lots of unrefined palm oil, coconut, hot peppers and seafood. And the far south is where churrasco — Brazilian barbecue — comes from, and you’ll see people drinking mate, like they do in Argentina and Uruguay. Of course, that’s not to say people only eat regional foods; beans and rice are a big part of most people’s diet, for example. But the regional traditions are still strong.

Q: How does the diet compare to the U.S., at least when it comes processed foods?

In Brazil, ultra-processed products make up about 28 percent of people’s total caloric intake, while in the U.S. almost 60 percent of the calories we take in come from ultra-processed foods, so that’s a difference of about half. Carlos Monteiro [a nutrition professor at the University of São Paulo and one of the leaders of the reform effort] and his colleagues are calling for people to look at the rise of ultra-processed foods. They don’t want to wait until Brazil gets to the point that the U.S. is at to take action.

Q: Why are Brazilians eating more ultra-processed foods?

There are a few different reasons. Like in the U.S., these products are marketed heavily and available everywhere. You’re practically never out of reach of a snack, and the products are made to be “craveable” so people like them and eat too much. And convenience is a huge factor. In cities like São Paulo, both parents often work and the kids are in school. It can be really hard given the grind of daily life in these gigantic cities to carve out time to cook fresh meals, and that’s assuming you can even afford to. The sheer size of the city makes it difficult for people to get home for meals like they might have in the past, before the economic boom and the expansion of women in the workforce. I think a lot of external structures make it challenging for people to eat healthy meals, especially as a family.

Q: Does the average Brazilian understand these packaged foods are unhealthy?

On a common-sense level, most people know that certain ultra-processed foods like chips or soda aren’t healthy. But, as Monteiro would point out, the difference between traditional and ultra-processed foods isn’t just the number of grams of fat or sugar. It’s about the health of the environment, the health of the local economy and the health of the agricultural system, in addition to bodily health. That said, knowing what you’re buying can be difficult. Take ice cream for example. If you’re on the beach in Rio you see ice cream vendors — some sell products made by Unilever or Nestlé, others something more home-spun. It’s all ice cream, but some of it is made in small batches with fruit, sugar and milk. And some of it is made with palm oil and corn syrup and comes from an industrial food chain. And they have different consequences for your body, the environment, the economy. That’s an example of why Monteiro thinks it’s important to look at processing, more than nutrients or food groups.

Q: You note that as women have entered the workforce in Brazil, it isn’t clear who should do the cooking. Did you see efforts to encourage Brazilian men to help with meals?

Kids are learning about cooking and healthy eating in public schools — both boys and girls. And if you look at the photos in the nutrition guide, they are careful to show pictures of dads and husbands cooking. When I spoke with Lorena Rodríguez, the head of the food and nutrition department in Chile’s Health Ministry, she told me that preserving a real food culture in her country “is the work of everyone.” She said, “It’s not that we women are going to return to the kitchen. We are all going back to the kitchen together.” And so when they do nutrition education, she said they also talk about how to share the responsibility among family members. Wherever you are, the U.S., Brazil, or Chile, I think it’s important to realize that the issue isn’t black and white: either women are chained to the stove or everyone eats processed food. There are ways to eat fresh food and cook more without giving up a modern lifestyle.

Q: Like what?

Well, in Brazil “per-kilo” restaurants are really popular. You fill your plate with fresh foods made from scratch—food you could probably cook in your own kitchen—and then you pay by the kilo. The food is good and really fast. And across Latin America, in farmers’ markets you can buy packages that are sort of like the “meal kits” that startups sell here. So you can buy a bundle of chopped onions, some carrots, maybe potatoes and some herbs, some greens. And you’re well on the way to a meal. You might add some stock or some protein. Of course, the Brazilian government is also bringing fresh food from family farms into the schools, which makes good nutrition more accessible to kids regardless of how much time their parents have to cook and whether they can afford healthy food.

Q: We heard a lot about Brazil’s food guidelines in the U.S. when they came out. But do most Brazilians know they exist?

I don’t know whether the average Brazilian does. But every expert I spoke with said they definitely want the guidelines more widely disseminated. I went to a cooking class for adults that was using them as the backbone of their recipes, and schools are drawing on them for nutrition education. But, from what I heard, the guidelines definitely need to be circulated more.

Q: I was a little stunned that Nestlé steers a boat, derisively called the ‘junk-food barge,’ up the Amazon to sell snacks. Are they the first company to do that?

At least in the Amazon, the idea of selling products via boat isn’t new. The rivers are the highways of this region and the towns can be very small, so it’s a good way to reach people. But in the past, boats mostly sold a whole range of things, including staples like rice and beans. What Nestlé is doing is different because it only sells its products and it’s really using the boat as a way to get more customers from the lower economic tiers. And the Nestlé boat is pretty swank. A lot of people I talked with were surprised Nestlé made it so showy.

Q: You spoke with some of Nestlé’s door-to-door saleswomen who go into poor neighborhoods in the cities. Did you get the impression they felt good about the food they were peddling?

I asked them that, and they were like, “Of course. Yogurt is healthy and these are safe products.” Nestlé has a big presence in Brazil, so people trust the brand. And the women I talked to seemed pretty pleased to work for the company, even though the carts are heavy and the women are on the hook if they can’t get customers to pay up. Nestlé has about 6,000 door-to-door salespeople, and most are women. They can make their own hours and work around their kids’ school schedules or other obligations. So it can fit their lifestyles better than, say, working in a factory.

Q: After everything you saw, did you leave Brazil feeling hopeful?

Actually, I did. We know how hard these issues are from watching the reform effort in the U.S. It won’t be easy for Monteiro and his colleagues. But the fact that the diet in Latin America hasn’t changed as radically as it has here is a real advantage. People still feel attached to and proud of their food traditions. In a way, Latin America is looking at the U.S. and thinking, “We can’t let it get that bad.” I heard that a lot. People told me they were learning from our example, even as we try to learn from theirs.

Photo by Peter Bauza.

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