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Latin America: More Ultra-Processed Foods Leading to Obesity

The increasing sales of ultra-processed foods—like fast food and sugary drinks—in Latin America have been fueling increased overweight and obesity rates in the region, according to a new report.

The report published this week by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) shows that from 2000 to 2013 the per capita sales of ultra-processed products increased by nearly 27 percent in the 13 Latin American countries studied.

During that same timeframe, the rates of people who were overweight or suffering from obesity in the region also increased, indicating there’s a strong correlation between the increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods and weight gain.

“Ultra-processed food products and fast food are occupying a larger share of what people eat and drink in Latin America, with very negative results,” said Enrique Jacoby, PAHO/WHO advisor on nutrition and physical activity.

The report also shows Latin America continues to be the world’s fourth-largest market in terms of per capita sales of ultra-processed food and drink products. Coming in first is North America, followed by Australasia and Western Europe.

“Ultra-processed food products and fast food are occupying a larger share of what people eat and drink in Latin America, with very negative results,” say the report's authors.

Among the 13 Latin American countries studied, Mexico and Chile had the highest sales of ultra-processed foods, while Bolivia and Ecuador had the lowest.

Ultra-processed foods are classified as being fatty, salty or sugary. They typically contain little or no whole foods, though they imitate the appearance of real food. They also have very low nutritional quality.

Foods such as ice cream, ready-meals, sweetened breakfast cereals, energy drinks, candy and carbonated soft drinks are considered ultra-processed. In Latin America, most of these ultra-processed products are increasingly sold in convenience stores, supermarkets and hypermarkets.

Jacoby said ultra-processed foods “are not designed to meet people’s nutritional needs.” Instead, he said they are “engineered to have long shelf lives and to create cravings that can completely overpower people’s innate appetite-control mechanisms and their rational desire to stop eating.”

“So they are doubly harmful: they are quasi-addictive and thus increase overweight and obesity, while replacing whole fresh foods that are the foundation of a natural, nutrient-rich human diet,” he added.