Brazil's Junk Food Culture Is Driven by Big Business

CC BY 2.0. Mark Hillary -- Shelves of popular Nestle-made cookies on a Brazilian store shelf

A relentless sweet tooth, naïveté, and sneaky marketing are conspiring to create a health disaster in every corner of this country.

As sales of processed foods dwindle in the West, big food companies like Nestle, Unilever, and General Mills are looking to developing nations to expand their markets. Countries such as Brazil, Ghana, India, Colombia, South Africa, and China have become major targets in the quest to sell more cookies, candy, baby formula, and instant coffee; but, as an investigation by the New York Times points out, this has serious health repercussions.

In places where hunger and malnutrition were a real struggle just a generation ago, now many people are suffering from caloric overload and the resulting chronic diseases – obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Latin America has seen the fastest growth in obesity, with Brazil’s rate doubling to 20 percent in the last decade, and the overweight rate at 58 percent. Scientists say this is directly related to increased access to cheap, high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods.

In Brazil, which is the focus of the Times investigation, Nestle employs a key strategy to reach remote households. It hires female vendors to walk its food products from house to house, giving shoppers up to a month to pay for their groceries. These vendors are known by the community members and trained to sing the products’ praises. It’s a highly effective marketing method that reaches an estimated quarter-million households throughout the country.

ice cream vendor

Anne-Mette Jensen -- The junk food vendors follow you all the way to the beach./CC BY 2.0

But it’s not just the door-to-door delivery that puts Nescafe and Nescau chocolate powder onto most Brazilian breakfast tables. There are other factors at play, such as a national discussion about health and wellness that has not matured to the point of Western countries.

Much of the general public is naïve about companies’ intentions. While many North Americans are familiar with reasons to boycott Nestle, the company is admired in Brazil for its Swiss pedigree – “perceived high quality, [and] negative sentiments about the company are rarely heard.” From the Times:

“Everyone here knows that Nestlé products are good for you,” [vendor da Silva] said, gesturing to cans of Mucilon, the infant cereal whose label says it is “packed with calcium and niacin.”
condensed milk

Cesar Cardoso -- Leite Moça, a type of condensed milk, is a kitchen staple in Brazil./CC BY 2.0

Brazilian lifestyles have evolved, as well, with rising incomes, due in large part to the Bolsa Família monthly government subsidy for low-income families, and busier lifestyles making convenience foods more appealing.

When legislation is proposed to curb junk food marketing to children, to extend the recommended breastfeeding age, and to prohibit food brands from sponsoring sporting events, it is fought viciously by food companies, which have tremendous clout in government and give generous donations to election campaigns.

“A study released last year [by Transparency International Brazil] found that more than half of Brazil’s current federal legislators had been elected with donations from the food industry – before the Supreme Court banned corporate contributions in 2015.”

The issue of corruption aside, pushing junk food onto a (mostly) uneducated, impoverished population creates lasting physical damage. Nursery schools in Brazil are reporting obese babies and children whose physical and cognitive development is impaired by poor nutrition. Some programs are working hard to educate parents about feeding their kids better, but even if the parents can be convinced of the fact that their children are actually sick, those kids will face a lifelong battle with obesity:

“That’s because a growing body of research suggests that childhood malnutrition can lead to permanent metabolic changes, reprogramming the body so that it more readily turns excess calories into body fat. ‘It’s the body’s response to what’s perceived as starvation,’ [nutritionist Juliana] Dellare Calia said.”
projeto criança

© K Martinko -- An after-school program in a favela in northeastern Brazil where I once worked & kids were given a nutritious meal between classes. Sometimes it was the only solid meal they received all day.

There are glimmers of hope, especially in the new dietary guidelines first published in 2014. The guidelines embrace regional cuisines and emphasize a slow-food culture eaten in company; but this is far from being the norm.

Having spent many months of my life living with Brazilian families and working with kids in an after-school program, I can speak for the fact that junk food is very much ingrained in the culture, from caffeinated soda served at breakfast and snack time with chocolate biscuits, to afternoon jaunts to the neighborhood candy stand for handfuls of paçoca peanut butter fudge, to the ubiquitous leite moça sweetened condensed milk drizzled over all manner of foods. Brazil has a definite sweet tooth and it will be a hard habit to crack.