Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr. the Hon. Christopher Tufton, has welcomed the Heart Foundation of Jamaica (HFJ) ‘Right to Know’ campaign, which encourages Jamaicans to be more mindful of the foods they consume that are harmful to their health.
“The need to spotlight the harm associated with the consumption of foods high in salt and sugar, fat and/or trans-fat is essential, since they are the fuel that helps to fire the numbers of persons, young and old, living with and dying from non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Added to that is the vulnerability of people with NCDs to adverse outcomes from [the coronavirus] COVID-19 and we see that this campaign, at this time, is mission critical,” he said.
Dr. Tufton, who was speaking at the virtual launch of the campaign on Thursday (March 4), commended the team at the HFJ for their “continued good work” and urged Jamaicans to embrace the campaign “and what it means for their empowered decision-making about what to eat, given the implications for their health, that of their families and their communities”.
Specifically, the campaign highlights the health harm of ultra-processed (packaged) foods, which are usually high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat or trans-fat. Research has connected these nutrients to increased risk and prevalence of obesity and other chronic, nutrition-related NCDs.
The Minister said he is pleased that the Right to Know campaign supports the Government’s push to “get ahead of the epidemic of NCDs”, noting that one in three Jamaicans are living with hypertension; one in eight is living with diabetes; and only four out of 10 are aware of their status.
The campaign has been developed against some of the evidence relating to the impact of NCDs, including the fact that 80 per cent of deaths in Jamaica are caused by NCDs, with heart disease causing 30 per cent of deaths and diabetes causing 12 per cent of deaths.
Dr. Tufton further noted that the campaign also champions front-of-package warning labels as an effective way to reach people with information that helps to guide their choice of what to eat, “and at a time when we are faced with a ballooning consumption of harmful, ultra-processed foods”.
“In this way, the Right to Know campaign aligns well with the work of the Ministry of Health and Wellness for the prevention and care and management of NCDs. This work includes the prioritisation of progress on food labelling, as seen in the efforts of the Ministry’s National Food Industry Task Force,” he said.
Dr. Tufton pointed out that specific goals of that work include making progress on the front-of-package labelling using the ‘HIGH IN’ format, which graphically indicates whether a product contains high levels of nutrients, such as sugar, sodium (salt) and/or fats.
He said the Ministry is also very concerned with the impact of unhealthy foods on the nation’s children, pointing out that one in two Jamaicans, including children and teens, is overweight or obese, fueled by the increased consumption of sweetened beverages, but also limited fruit, vegetable and water intake and low levels of physical activity.
“The 2017 School Health Survey tells us that some 24 per cent of students were overweight and nine per cent were obese, with 20 per cent spending more than eight hours per day sitting, 68 per cent drinking carbonated drinks one or more times per day, while more than half ate fast food on one or more days per week,” the Minister noted.
He said that it is against this background that the look at front-of-package labelling by the Ministry is being complemented by a look at nutritional labelling and why the ongoing work of the Food Industry Task Force extends to addressing product reformulation, food marketing, advocacy, and communication.
“This is with the objectives to reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising, reduce portion sizes of energy-dense foods and products, and improve the quality of foods sold by food outlets and vendors,” he said.
In the meantime, Dr. Tufton informed that some progress has been seen through some interventions that have been undertaken to “slow the NCDs train”.
This includes the development of the Interim Guidelines for Beverages in Schools, approved by Cabinet in 2018 against the background of the evidence, which shows that the link between the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and childhood obesity are real.
“We have also developed the capacity in Jamaica to test for sugars, salt, total fat, saturated fat and trans-fat, courtesy of upgraded lab equipment and training done with the Bureau of Standards and the Scientific Research Council. We are also involved with the LIFE project of the Caribbean Institute for Health Research (CAIHR), with its investigation into the role of genetic, lifestyle, social, and environmental factors in NCDs in Jamaica, and the use of a cohort studies approach and multi-stakeholder collaboration to achieve its intended results,” Dr. Tufton informed.
The Minister further informed that the Ministry is also undertaking collaborative research in the area of NCDs, also with CAIHR, pursuing a $13-million Salt Study in addition to a look at sugar, with the support of the National Health Fund.
“Our efforts are indicative of just how seriously we take the NCDs epidemic and our commitment to safeguarding the health and wellness of the people of Jamaica,” Dr, Tufton stressed.
The Right to Know campaign was launched in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Wellness, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the Paediatric Association of Jamaica, the Caribbean Institute for Health Research, and the National Consumers’ League of Jamaica.
The campaign will run on TV, radio, in newspapers, on social media and on billboards. Jamaicans are encouraged to share messages about the campaign on social media using the hashtags #RightToKnow, #FrontofPack, #What’sInOurFood?, #GiveUsTheFacts, and #FoodLabels. They can also like, comment, share or repost content from the Instagram or Facebook pages of @heartfoundationja.