It is a truth universally acknowledged that what we eat helps to determine our health. Therefore, front of package labelling (FOPL) has become a discussion point, when it comes to processed foods, because of its importance in helping consumers make informed choices about what they consume and how it can impact their health.

“The Heart Foundation of Jamaica and its partners are currently advocating for the implementation of the High In black octagonal front of package warning label,” explained Ms Barbara McGaw, Project Manager, Global Health Advocacy Project, The Heart Foundation of Jamaica.

 “We are advocating for this black octagon, based on the local study done by PAHO in December 2020, which showed the Black Octagon to be superior to other FOPL in assisting consumers to make healthier choices. This model as also chosen by the Caribbean Regional Organisation for Standards and Quality (CROSQ), as the option for the regional standard.”

Barbara McGaw

Ms McGaw explained that front-of-package labels are symbols and rating systems placed on the front of processed food packages, or foods that have been changed from their natural state. They are simple, clear graphics on the front of packaged or processed food products, which provides information about nutrients of concern, such as: unhealthy fats, sodium and added sugars to obesity, diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases.

“At present, nutrition labelling on the back of food and beverage packages is not mandatory for products in Jamaica, and many local products do not have it,” she revealed.

“When products do have the nutrition fact panels, they can sometimes be hard to understand,” she pointed out, “As consumers, we need an easier way to identify and make healthier food choices when shopping. This type of label can help us make the best choices for our bodies, reducing our risk of diseases such as: high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer.”

“With this information, we are better able to control our purchases of foods, which are high in fat, salt, and sugar, to help to keep Jamaica healthy, and keep overweight/obesity rates low. It can also be used as a guide for persons on special diets, such as persons living with diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Front-of-Package Labels will also encourage our industries to reformulate products, thereby improving the nutritional content of the products they are providing,” she added.” It is important to note that not all products would carry FOPL; only those that are above thresholds set by PAHO for nutrients that are harmful to health in excess.”

Ms McGaw noted that with the dietary habits of Jamaicans changing over the years, there has been an increased consumption of foods high in fat, salt, and sugar.

“This is also attributed to the increased presence of pre-packaged processed foods, which are pervasively marketed at attractive prices. A poor diet is one of the leading causes of NCDs, especially cardiovascular disease globally,” she explained.

Ms McGaw adds that to reduce the risk of NCDs and cardiovascular diseases, consumers needed to be armed with information to make the right choice.

“Given the magnitude of the NCD and CVD burden in not only Jamaica, and the complexity of dietary risk factor modification, there is need for rigorous prevention strategies and policies across multiple societal levels to make a measurable impact on reducing prevalence rates. Evidence-based policies are crucial to improve the diet and health of our population,” she added.

Hugh Reid

Mr Hugh Reid, General Manager, JN Life Insurance Company explains that studies conducted by the Ministry of Health and Wellness, indicating that medical costs from cardiovascular diseases and diabetes alone, over the next 15 years, could be as high as $29.8 billion. He said it was important for Jamaicans to monitor what they ate; and pay close attention to labels on food packages.

“We should avoid ultra-processed foods that are high in fat, salts and sugar. Therefore reading and understanding food labels are important. Most importantly, no matter how prepared you are, we always remind Jamaicans that prevention is always better than the cure. Therefore, a healthy lifestyle is the best choice,” he said.

Meanwhile, The Heart Foundation of Jamaica is reminding Jamaicans to follow these simple steps to remain healthy.

“Get regular screening to know your four health numbers, blood sugar, blood pressure, blood lipids and BMI. Follow a healthy diet and practice to read food labels. Eat adequate amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables; lean protein, and whole grains for dietary fiber. Drink more water, fewer sugary drinks, and less alcohol. Try not to skip meals; eat breakfast lunch and dinner every day. Controlling portion size and calorie intake. Stay physically active and aim to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity for five days per week. It can help you lose extra pounds and ease stress,” Ms McGaw affirmed.