Fifty years ago, when Carlos Monteiro began his career as a pediatrician in the sprawling slums of São Paulo, his patients were starving. The children he treated were underweight and anemic, with low heart rates and protruding collarbones. Today, Monteiro’s patients are still malnourished, but now they suffer from fatty livers and hypertension: The cause of their ailment is not starvation—it’s obesity.
Over the past several decades, transnational food corporations have colonized Brazil, upending traditional diets and sparking a national obesity epidemic. As sales of ultra-processed foods—industrial concoctions packed with sugar, oil, and fat—plateau in the wealthy West, developing nations have become critical markets. In Latin America, sales of such foods increased by over 50 percent from 2000 to 2013, with and soda sales doublinged. “Big Food” has taken advantage of opening markets and emerging consumer classes to market aggressively in Brazil and other developing nations. In Brazil in the 1970s, less than three percent of men and eight percent of women were obese. Now, 18 percent of adults are obese and over half are overweight. Every year, 300,000 Brazilians are diagnosed with Type II diabetes, and for many, heart disease, hypertension, and other obesity-related ailments have become facts of life.
Transnational food corporations wield incredible power in both the public and the private sector. Behind this demographic shift are multi-national food and beverage conglomerates. These corporations They produce 10 percent of the nation’s economic output and employ an astounding 1.6 million Brazilians. Before the Supreme Court banned corporate campaign contributions in 2015, over half of Brazil’s federal legislators were funded by the food industry, and food corporations donated 158 million USD to members of the National Congress of Brazil’s National Congress in 2014 alone. Despite the court’s ruling, these conglomerates still wield immense influence over the everyday lives of consumers.
A powerful method by which Big Food has pervaded Brazil is through advertising. Globally, food conglomerates have pursued reformulation strategies that involve minute adjustments to the percentages of fat and salt in their products that allow them to promote their products as healthy. The ultimate consequence of these strategies is largely negative—once these products are perceived as “healthy,” people are likely to consume them in eat larger quantities of them, foregoing fresh, nutritious food in favor of packaged foods that, in reality, aren’t healthy at all. Brazil’s government can counter these strategies by tightening the requirements for foods to that can be marketed as healthy.
Instilling good eating habits is the most sustainable way to promote long-term health and well-being. To achieve this goal, Brazil must focus on two critical components of healthy eating: access and education.
Greater access to healthy food is necessary to improve the national diet. In rural areas, where food insecurity is more common, Nestlé’s traveling carts of Kit -Kats and puddings are highly appealing due to a the lack of alternatives. In order to improve access to food in rural areas, Brazil should invest in its family farms. Family farms are responsible for 70 percent of the food Brazilians consume and 40 percent of Brazil’s agricultural output and comprise 84.4 percent of the total number of farms in the country, but many farmers live in a state of insecurity and face threats of land encroachment by from big agribusiness. By providing microcredit loans and crop insurance to these farmers and implementing policies that protect their land, Brazil’s government can provide the security that will enable farmers to them to feed their communities.
In urban areas, convenience plays a crucial role in determining what families decide to eat. Unfortunately, many do not have time to cook for themselves and turn to pre-packaged, ultra-processed food. Still, several solutions have arisen to meet the demand for quick, nutritious food. “Per-kilo” restaurants serve wholesome, nutritious food buffet-style, providing affordable, convenient, and healthy options for people. Meal kits, similar to ones sold by startups in the US, are another option. At the farmers market, a family can buy a packages of chopped onions, carrots, grains, potatoes, greens, and herbs, which form the base of to a healthy meal.
However, increasing the supply of healthy foods isn’t enough. There must also be a substantive demand. Most Many people don’t understand the health effects of ultra-processed food. In many rural areas, people believe Nestlé’s products are healthy and are attracted to the brand’s flashy packaging. Access alone won’t solve Brazil’s health problem; Unless people recognize that ultra-processed foods are bad for them, they won’t have any incentive to change their diet.
Brazil’s government has already taken some made steps to educate toward educating the public to influence their eating habits about healthy eating. In 2014, Brazil released one of the world’s most progressive sets of nutrition guidelines. The guidelines transcend basic advice about food groups and proper proportions of fat and calories and instead classify foods based on their level of processing—a radical step in the arena of food education. They also consider the social, cultural, and environmental dimensions of consumption, far more thoroughly than the US’s guidelines, which remain vague in order to protect corporate interests. The Brazilian guidelines provide not only a foundation for food educators, but also a clear government statement of intent activists can build on.
With these guidelines in place, programs to implement them are now in progress. Brazil’s school lunch program is an exceptional example—the World Food Programme dubbed it “an inspiration for other countries.” The government spends 1.3 billion USD annually on student nutrition. Every student from preschool through university is guaranteed a free meal every day. 70 percent of the ingredients used to prepare these meals must be “basic”: greens, veggies, grains, bread, and the like. Furthermore, 30 percent of the food must be procured from family farms, exposing children to fresh, local food and providing farmers with access to a massive, dependable market.
The Brazilian government can make an even bigger impact by adding an educational component to the program, in which children can learn about the virtues of fresh produce and whole grains through the food they eat every afternoon. In accordance with Brazil’s nutrition guidelines, the curriculum should teach students to judge food based on the way it is prepared and aim to instill an appreciation for fresh food, a respect for the country’s traditional food customs, and an awareness of environmental issues surrounding food consumption. While this is a gradual slow process, it’s one that must begin now.
Though Brazil has begun its long journey to fight obesity, it’s is not the only country being plagued by skyrocketing rates of obesity these dire health issues. Transnational food corporations are waging war on traditional food systems around the world; globally, more people are now obese and overweight than underweight. For many countries, the road ahead is rocky: These corporations wield immense power and are often deeply entrenched within the public sector. Brazil’s brilliant pre-existing government programs and its administration’s commitment to promoting healthy eating put the country in a unique and remarkable position; it has a chance to win the fight against Big Food, reverse the trends that have wreaked havoc on the health of its people, and serve as a model for the rest of the world.
Photo: Nestle Beverage Factory