Snack or Starve: The Debate Surrounding Nestlé Selling Processed Food in Brazil

To learn more about food security among people living in poverty in rural countries, check out Poverty, Food Security, and the Right to Health, by Robert S. Lawrence, Iris Chan, and Emily Goodman, available on Westlaw and LexisNexis.

by Zachary Karlan

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Image available here

Nestlé is by far the largest food and beverage company in the world.[1] In September of 2017, the New York Times published “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food,” in which it explains how Nestlé employs Brazilian citizens to deliver its products right to the front door of approximately 250,000 households.[2] Nestlé and other companies have aggressively adopted a presence in developing countries like Brazil to combat declining sales in more economically developed nations.[3] This door-to-door delivery model makes it simple for the poorest Brazilians to access food, especially those who do not live near a supermarket.[4] Although not currently in service, Nestlé used to have a floating barge that would deliver food to villages in the Amazon.[5] According to the company, Nestlé serves 700,000 “lower income consumers” who benefit from “products enriched with vitamin A, iron and zinc—the three major nutritional deficiencies in Brazil.”[6] On its face, Nestlé and other multinational companies who employ a similar model for global expansion appear to provide an objectively good service: Providing poor individuals with food that might not otherwise be accessible and at a price they can afford. However, studies show that Brazil is facing a serious obesity problem due to the abundance of processed foods from companies like Nestlé.[7] This should force us to question whether this program is truly helping the poor.

People tend to believe that the most serious health issues that developing countries face are infectious diseases, while obesity and diabetes are more typically associated with more economically developed countries.[8] However, Lawrence Gostin, a Global Health Law expert at Georgetown University Law Center disproves that assumption and explains, “80 percent of the 35 million people who die annually from [non-communicable diseases] live in low- and middle-income countries.”[9] He goes on to say, “It is predicted that by 2030, NCD’s will be the leading cause of death in every region of the world.”[10] Parts of the world that suffer from hunger, are now dealing with “a new type of malnutrition, one in which a growing number of people are both overweight and undernourished” because of  “the growing availability of high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods.”[11] The twenty-five percent increase in global sales of packaged food from 2011 to 2016 demonstrates this radical shift in the globalized agricultural industry.[12] In the last decade, Brazil’s obesity rate has doubled from ten to twenty percent, and 300,000 people a year are diagnosed with Type II diabetes.[13] Despite these shocking statistics, there is more to the picture.

In the New York Times article, an advisor to Nestlé, argues:

We’re not going to get rid of all factories and go back to growing all grain. It’s nonsense. It’s not going to work. If I ask 100 Brazilian families to stop eating processed food, I have to ask myself: What will they eat? Who will feed them? How much will it cost?[14]

Nestlé released a response on their website and stated, “We are disappointed that the article provided a misleading impression of how Nestlé is conducting business around the world . . . We believe our wide portfolio positively contributes to the health and wellness of the communities we serve.”[15] They provide evidence that they have reduced sugar and salt in their products, followed strict standards on advertising and marketing to children under the age of six, and have worked with public health organizations to help solve the global obesity epidemic.[16] Nestlé has also provided job opportunities to thousands of people through their door-to-door delivery services. Finally able to afford dental care and structural improvements to her home, one of Nestlé’s employees says, “For the first time in my life, I feel a sense of hope and independence.”[17]

So who is to blame for Brazil’s obesity epidemic? If Brazilians had the opportunity to get rid of Nestlé, would they be better off? The answer is not as obvious as the New York Times article tries to make it seem. Brazil is facing issues that are not unique—but are part of a much larger epidemiologic transition that the United States and other more economically developed nations have faced for decades. Junk food products that Nestlé creates affect our brains in ways that make these foods addictive.[18] Research has shown that sugary and fatty foods have the same type of effect on the brain as cocaine and merely seeing these foods can trigger the brain’s reward circuits to respond, causing us to overeat even if we are not hungry.[19]

Although Nestlé offers around 800 products to Brazilians through its door-to-door delivery service, customers are primarily interested in a small number of unhealthy products. According to one of the vendors in Brazil, the best-selling products are “virtually all sugar-sweetened items,” including Kit-Kats, Nestlé Greek Red Berry, and Chandelle Pacoca, nearly all of which contain the total amount of the World Health Organization’s recommended daily limit of sugar.[20]

The most troublesome aspect of this program is that it is primarily driven at the poorest individuals in Brazil. Although Nestlé strives to educate consumers about portion control and has lowered the amount of sugar and fat in their products, these efforts fail to make a material difference if Brazilians are primarily eating the unhealthy products Nestlé creates. The United States has plenty of healthy food options, but that does not necessarily help those that live in food deserts and cannot afford these choices. Educating Brazilians about the harmful nature of the unhealthy products they are consuming may help curb the obesity and diabetes rate, but the problem is complex and multifaceted. Some argue that the government has no right to tell people what they should eat and paternalistic solutions are not the answer. For example, Mayor Bloomberg’s Soda Ban in New York City caused uproar amongst citizens even in one of the nation’s most liberal cities.[21] If the government in Brazil suddenly banned processed foods or limited the portions in which they could be sold, there would likely be a similar result.

Brazil now faces similar issues relating to obesity as the United States, while at the same time it must address the high rates of infectious diseases that are less prevalent in more economically developed countries. Brazil is burdened with trying to fight off AIDS, malaria and other tropical diseases from which the developing world is suffering, which compounds the issue and may make the tools that the United States uses to combat these issues less effective or relevant. Our globalized economy has made these first-world diseases enter the third-world and there doesn’t seem to be a straight-forward or short-term solution. It is easy to point the finger at companies like Nestlé and blame them for the world’s health issues, but simply getting rid of the program, rather than making efforts towards educating Brazilians about the food they are consuming, may not be politically feasible or the answer to Brazil’s emerging health issues.

[1] Maggie McGrath, World’s Largest Food and Beverage Companies 2017: Nestle, Pepsi and Coca-Cola Dominate the Field, Forbes (May 24, 2017), https://www.forbes.com/sites/maggiemcgrath/2017/05/24/worlds-largest-food-and-beverage-companies-2017-nestle-pepsi-and-coca-cola-dominate-the-landscape/#1c16de673a69.

[2] Andrew Jacobs & Matt Richtel, How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food, N.Y. Times (Sept. 16, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/16/health/brazil-obesity-nestle.html.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Press Release, Nestlé, Nestlé Launces First Floating Supermarket In the Brazilian North Region (June 17, 2010), https://www.nestle.com/asset-library/Documents/Media/press-release/2010-february/Nestl%C3%A9%20Brazil%20Press%20Release%20-%20A%20Bordo.pdf. or.rovesessively adopted dhe time would not. he actual killer has knowledge tha tmost  person who knew how to do this, c port ie

[6] Door-to-Door Sales of Products, Nestle, https://www.nestle.com/csv/case-studies/allcasestudies/door-to-doorsalesoffortifiedproducts,brazil.

[7] Dom Phillips, Once Underfed, Brazil’s Poor Have a New Problem: Obesity, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/once-underfed-brazils-poor-have-a-new-problem-obesity/2016/11/23/74c661fa-ab8e-11e6-8f19-21a1c65d2043_story.html.

[8] Lawrence O. Gostin, Global Health Law 383 (2014).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Jacobs & Richtel, supra note 2.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] How Nutritious Are Nestlé Foods in Brazil?, Nestlé, https://www.nestle.com/ask-nestle/health-nutrition/answers/addressing-new-york-times-obesity-junk-food-brazil.

[16] Id.

[17] Jacobs & Richtel, supra note 2.

[18] Ferris Jabr, How Sugar and Fat Trick the Brain into Wanting More Food, Sci. Am. (Jan. 1, 2016), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-sugar-and-fat-trick-the-brain-into-wanting-more-food/.

[19] Id.

[20] Jacobs & Richtel, supra note 2. s emerging health issues. ts towards educating Brazilians about the food they are consuming, zil’ich they could be sold, it is l

[21] Rachel Weiner, The New York City Soda Ban Explained, Wash. Post (Mar. 3, 2011), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2013/03/11/the-new-york-city-soda-ban-explained.