The initiative of these companies in partnership with the Ministry of Health represents a reduction of less than 2% in the intake of sugar and comes at a time when the government is contemplating regulation

By Piero Locatelli

The Brazilian Ministry of Health and the food industry have signed an agreement to reduce the amount of sugar in products. The agreement downaims to reduce consumption by 144,000 tons over the next four years.

The number seems large, but it is not: the reduction is equivalent to about 1.5% of the sugar intake from processed foods in the country. The ministry estimates that each Brazilian consumes, on average, 80 grams of sugar daily – 36% comes from industrialized foods.

Several of the best-selling products in the country, including the ones most consumed by children, are not impacted by the agreement. Soft drinks from Coca-Cola, for example, have 10.5 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters. Today, this is already within the parameters by 0.1 gram by the goal set for these products in 2022, which is 10.6 grams.

Another example of a product that will be exempted is Nescau, the country’s most popular chocolate milk drink, which has 75 grams of sugar for every 100 grams of the product, below the 85 grams-limit set for 2022.

Chocolate, breakfast cereals, candies and jellies, all largely consumed by children, are not even listed in the agreement. The press conference held at the headquarters of the Ministry of Health in Brasília revealed the fragility of the measure. Neither the industry nor the minister knew how to respond to several of the existing flaws.

The ministry’s promotional material concealed the real goals, which were known later. The goals were calculated based on the average of the existing products on the market today, favoring large corporations, which in general already have a low- nutritional profile than that of their competitors and more resources to invest in reformulation.

The following are some sugar limits on industrialized products set forth in the agreement:

  • Soft drinks: 11 grams per 100 milliliters by the end of 2020 and 10.6 grams per 100 milliliters by the end of 2022
  • Chocolate milk drinks: 90.3 grams per 100 grams by the end of 2020 and 85 grams per 100 grams by the end of 2022
  • Sandwich cookies: 36.4 grams per 100 grams by the end of 2020;
  • Yogurt and other fermented milk: 14.5 grams per 100 grams by the end of 2020 and 12.8 grams per 100 grams by the end of 2022

Despite the defined concentrations, monitoring progress towards these goals will be a  challenge. The disclosure of sugar content in products is not mandatory in Brazil. Today, for example, most of the sandwich cookies and cakes do not display this information, making it impossible to know what these products contain today, at the start of the agreement, and how they will reach the agreed level.

Due to its unambitious goals, the agreement is likely to go nowhere in reducing diseases caused by excess sugar, says Ana Paula Bortoletto, leader of the Healthy Food Program of the Brazilian Institute of Consumer Protection. “Our expectation is that it will not have much impact in preventing chronic diseases”, says the nutritionist.

Brazil is already ranked as the fourth country with the highest sugar intake in the world, according to Sucden, a global leader in this market. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that the consumption of sugar does not exceed 10% of the total calories consumed, which is around 50 grams in the case of an adult, while in the country this index reaches 16%.

The Ministry of Health estimates that three out of four deaths in Brazil are due to chronic noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cancer. The most recent data show that 18.9% of Brazilians are obese and 54.9% are overweight.

Ultra-processed foods have been gaining more and more traction, as shown in the Household Budget Survey. Soft drinks, chocolate, industrialized cakes and cookies represent an increasing share of sugar intake.

The industry, which was in charge of drawing up the agreement, defends the goals the industry itself stipulated during talks with the Ministry of Health. “We had a lot of discussions and technical workshops with the Ministry of Health for each food. And we arrived at numbers that are feasible to reach”, said João Dornellas, president of the main association of the industry.

The agreement comes at a time when the industry is under increasing pressure. Several countries have adopted changes in labeling, restrictions on advertising and taxation of sugary drinks in an attempt to curb the rise in obesity rates and the explosion in the occurrence of chronic diseases. In Brazil, the National Health Surveillance Agency  has been considering placing warnings on packages indicating excess of salt, sugar and fats.

Agreement repeats criticized formula

The agreement to reduce sugar mimics a previous one, which sought to reduce sodium in processed foods. Signed in 2007, while the regulatory agency discussed restrictions to the advertising of these products, its purpose was to reduce salt in foods such as bread, spices, meats, instant noodles among other products.

From the industry’s perspective, the agreement worked so well that it should be replicated. “The evaluation could not be better because, in addition to the excellent results achieved, the Sodium Reduction Plan served as a reference for the development of the Sugar Reduction Plan”, said the manufacturers’ association in a note sent to the press. The entity says it had removed “more than 17,254 tons of sodium from 35 categories of processed food. The goal is to reach 28,500 tons by 2020.”

Based on the number presented by the association, considering 17,254 tons divided by the Brazilian population in 2007 (190 million), this would achieve an annual reduction of eight grams per person, or 0.022 grams per day.

Far from corporate optimism, independent studies that this was a failure. A research conducted by the Institute of Collective Health Studies at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro foresaw that the reduction of sodium consumption by Brazilian citizens by the end of 2017 would only be of 1.5%.

The Brazilian Institute of Consumer Protection, in turn, criticizes the lack of ambition of such goals. “We saw that most products had already met the goal long before the deadline. In practice, this reduction of sodium meant very little for products that were already on the market”, says Ana Paula. A research conducted in 2014 by the Institute showed that almost half of the evaluated products (49.5%) would not be impacted by such goals. A percentage similar to what we see now when it comes to sugar.

The criteria were established by the industry itself, which led the development process. “The government did not have as much information and technical capacity as the industry to think about all issues concerning the goals”, says political scientist and professor Marcello Fragano Baird, who published a study on the development of the agreement.

Baird says that negotiations were unbalanced. There was too little involvement of civil society, and furthermore the manufacturers’ association, which led the process, does not represent the entire food industry. “To say the least, there was a lack of balance to establish the rules of this game. There was only one seat taken at the round table.”

The lack of participation resulted in goals that were weak, and, moreover, there are no consequences if they are not fulfilled. The government has adopted the voluntary model, where companies are willing to meet goals, rather than a regulation defined and monitored by the state.

“If we get to the end of the agreement and the goals have not been met, what will be done? Nothing will be done. And the population will keep on having health problems, which will only increase”, says Baird. To him, the government should not work off this model.

The researchers at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro came to a similar conclusion. “It will be difficult to achieve the necessary reduction in sodium consumption in Brazil from voluntary agreements based on those that have been done so far”, they conclude in the study.

Agreements are only part of the solution

Even if they succeeded, such agreements would only be a part of the solution to the problem of excessive consumption of salt and sugar in the country. According to Ana Paula, cutting out sodium and sugar from ultra-processed foods would be effective in countries like the United States, where more than 70% of sodium comes from processed foods. As the share in Brazil is lower, around 30%, these agreements have a limited impact.

The government itself recommends that such products be avoided. The Dietary Food Guidelines for the Brazilian Population by the Ministry of Health states that natural fresh foods should be the basis of a diet, and that the consumption of ultra-processed foods should be avoided.

The Ministry of Health guarantees that there is an agreement with the industry to not replace sugar with sweeteners but that is not part of the signed commitment. The tendency here is to follow what has been done all over the world: promote a massive exchange for sweeteners. This poses a health risk since evidence shows there is no guarantee of safety for the intake of these substances, specially if they are ingested in large quantities.