Health Facts


According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 19751. In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight1. Of these over 650 million were obese1. Obesity increases the risk of several debilitating, and deadly diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, cancers and more, all of which have seen a profound increase over the years.1

A range of factors (including urbanisation, economic growth, technical change, and culture) has driven the change in diet over the last three centuries. Coupled with reduced activity and a more sedentary lifestyle, these changes have been accompanied by major shifts in health status.2

Obesity is undoubtedly one of the biggest medical problems of the 21st century. The problem affects more and more children and adolescents. 10% of the world’s school-aged children have an excess body weight and a quarter of these children are obese.3

In South Africa too, obesity is fast growing, with one in eight children now living with obesity. In the last decade, the obesity rate has increased from one in 20 to one in eight children.4

Chemically processed foods, also called ultra-processed foods, tend to be high in sugar, artificial ingredients, refined carbohydrates, and trans fats. Because of this, they are a major contributor to obesity and illness around the world.5

In recent decades, ultra-processed food intake has increased dramatically worldwide. These foods now account for 25–60% of a person’s daily energy intake throughout much of the world.6

Examples of ultra-processed foods include frozen or ready meals; baked goods including pizza, cakes, and pastries; packaged breads; processed cheese products; breakfast cereals; crackers and chips; sweets and ice cream; instant noodles and soups; reconstituted meats such as sausages, nuggets, fish fingers, and processed ham; and cool drinks, fruit juice and other sweetened drinks.5

One large study, involving more than 100,000 adults, found that eating 10% more ultra-processed foods was associated with above a 10% increase in the risks of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, and conditions that affect blood flow and the blood vessels in the brain. 5

Eating and drinking too much sugar is a major cause of obesity. Obesity increases your risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.6+7

When you drink liquid sugar, which is in sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), it is even more harmful. Your liver absorbs liquid sugars faster than solid sugars. Liquid sugars change your body’s digestion. They affect things like your blood chemistry and cholesterol (harmful fat). They also affect the substances made or used when the body breaks down food, causing high blood pressure and swelling. These chemicals increase the risk for: type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, tooth decay and liver disease, as well as of 13 types of major cancers. 7-12

Unprocessed foods are foods straight from nature. They are good nutrition. They either have had a small change to make them easy to eat, or they have nothing changed at all. Examples include a boiled mielie or a fresh apple. Unprocessed foods have no added sugar, salt, or fat, they have no additives, they are high in vitamins, minerals, and fibre.

To maintain good health, people need to eat from these seven food groups regularly: starchy foods; vegetables and fruits, dry beans, peas, lentils and soya; chicken, fish, meat and eggs; milk, maas, yoghurt; fat and oil; and water.13

According to UNICEF, nutrition labelling can help consumers to make better choices. Front-of-package labelling (FoPL) of foods and beverages helps consumers to make healthier food choices at the point of purchase by delivering simplified and at-a-glance nutritional information. Evidence shows that consumers prefer a FoPL that is immediately visible and can be understood easily at a glance and are more likely opt for healthier options when these quickly capture their attention.13

FoPL are an evidence-based policy tool, backed by decades of research showing that they can effectively nudge consumers towards healthier foods and drinks while also encouraging industry to improve the nutritional profile of the products they sell.The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends FoPL as a key policy to promote healthy diets and reduce NCD prevalence worldwide. The WHO focuses in particular on reducing consumption of foods high in sodium, saturated and trans fats, and added sugar.14

Simple, negative warning labels that clearly identify unhealthy products have the strongest evidence for effectiveness at discouraging junk food and ultra-processed food choices. Warning labels work by helping consumers identify unhealthy products and discouraging them from consuming these products.14

FoPL warning labels such as those used in Chile (introduced 2016), Peru (2019), Israel (2020), Mexico (2020), Uruguay (2021), and in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, and Venezuela (2022–2024) require packaged foods and drinks to carry warning labels clearly indicating if the product is high in sugar, saturated or trans fats, sodium, or calories – whichever apply. These labels help consumers quickly and easily identify unhealthy foods and drinks and make healthier choices from the array of available products.14

Since Chile’s FoPL warning labels began appearing on packages in 2016, they have contributed to shifts in social norms and behaviours around purchasing healthier foods and drinks as well as healthier product reformulation. Real-world evidence shows that Chilean consumers are aware of, and understand the labels, and they are using them to make food purchase decisions.14

Evidence to date suggests that nutrient warning labels offer the strongest FoPL approach in use today, particularly for the goal of reducing consumption of unhealthy, ultra-processed foods and drinks.14