Photo: Flickr/Fernando Stankuns

This is the year we can all look to Brazil’s Food Guide for tips on how to consider what we eat in a new light.

The holiday and feasting season in December is the hardest time of the year to be counting calories on a diet. January is a different story as many of us turn to food as a source of our resolutions. This January is probably the easiest time to try out Brazil’s bold dietary guidelines, issued this year and recently made available in English. 

Brazil is best known in the food and health worlds for its Zero Hunger program, launched in 2003 in what was then known as the most unequal country in the world. The country is already well past the UN millennial goal for 2015 of cutting extreme hunger and poverty in half. Now they’re refocusing on the need to have a good time enjoying the pleasures of food.

This year, the Brazilian health ministry followed up with healthy eating guidelines directed to the entire population, thereby ensuring that ending hunger does not lead to epidemic rates of chronic disease associated with calorie-rich/nutrient deprived foods promoted by the world’s biggest, most profitable and powerful food corporations.

Despite the insipid title, Dietary Guideline for the Brazilian Population, this is unquestionably the most down-to-earth yet visionary rethink of food’s role in health promotion since national food guides were introduced during World War II, one of the rare times in history when the physical stamina of munitions workers and soldiers  captured the attention of national governments.

The food guides actively promoted during the war provided a patriotic baptism and scientific rationale for the globalized and industrialized food system that emerged from it.

Though the food guides in many countries have been modified significantly since the 1940s, the core principles have remained intact and largely unchallenged, in the population at large as well as among food and health professionals and government policy analysts. As a rule, food guides divide food into groups – grains, dairy and so on – and treat food as a delivery vehicle for fuel and chemicals essential to a narrowly medical definition of physical nutrition, largely ignoring psychological, social, environmental or economic nourishment, health and wellbeing.  

Many are the dietary critics who have since hammered away at one or another food group on behalf of every polarization imaginable — vegetarianism, veganism, low-fat, high-fat, high protein, high carb and so on. But the core principles – that foods are helpfully divvied up into food groups, that food has a relatively narrow and physiological health mandate, and that health can be achieved by the right balance of chemicals delivered by food, regardless of production methods or social settings.

That World War II era of dietary guidelines is now officially challenged and open to debate, as is the dominance of nation states of the Global North in determining food agendas.

Since the 1990s, when the advent of so-called neo-liberalism slammed the brakes on imaginative initiatives in public policy, almost all innovative thinking about food, health and well-being has come from the Global South.  When the advent of so-called neo-liberalism slammed the brakes on innovative public policy initiatives — never mind governments’ much lower-order traditional role of protecting the population from disease caused by excessive salt, trans-fats or overpowering marketing to children – imaginative rethinking went south.

Urban agriculture, food sovereignty, agro-ecology, and now comprehensive dietary guidelines, hail from the South – not surprising since the rapid rise of industrial food regimes and associated chronic diseases almost automatically trigger mass protest in countries where threadbare medical systems and militant peasant movements make food a hot political set of issues.     

The preliminary scientific thinking behind Brazil’s guidelines come from a partnership between Carlos Monteiro and Geoffrey Cannon, who published a lengthy series of articles in the magazine World Nutrition culminating in the 2012 publication of a commentary on “ultra-processing” as “the big issue for nutrition, disease, health, well-being.”

The argument there provides the key thread linking the 150 pages of the Brazilian health ministry guidelines, which is a new classification system based on levels of processing, not food groups.

There are three kinds of processing, the argument goes. The first and oldest is minimal processing, such as drying or salting food so it can be stored. The second, straight-out processing, is often associated with the concentrating of oil (in margarine or shortening, for example) that became more common during the 1800s and early 1900s.  The third, ultra-processing, became the norm after the 1970s when a new generation of global corporations mined wonderfoods such as corn for a welter of chemical ingredients and mixed these up with an array of artificial factory-made foodlike substances that added color, flavor, mouthfeel, shelflife, and extreme convenience.

One aim of the guide is to encourage people to prepare and eat mainly minimally-processed foods (rice, beans, fruit and vegetables, for example).  Four of ten recommended steps to healthy diets feature shopping locally in farmers markets or other places where minimally processed foods set the standard. “Whenever possible, buy organic and agro-ecological based foods, preferably directly from the producers,” says Step 6. Sweetened cereals and soda pop are described as ultra-processed products lacking nutritional balance.

Just as important — and this is where the classification method departs from old-fashioned food guides and parts company with global corporations – ultra-processed foods are dissed because their “means of production, distribution, marketing, and consumption damage culture, social life, and the environment.” 

Here is the holistic valuing of food and health that has been ignored by nutrition officials wondering how many food groups could dance on the head of a rainbow or plate.

Social equity is put on the menu, in sections urging all people to engage in planning and shopping for, preparing and cleaning up after meals.  Social cohesion is promoted in multiple sections, all attesting to the power of meals to bring people together and encourage conviviality. Eating alone or scarfing food at a work station or while operating a mobile phone are described as eroding the food environment needed to promote fellowship and slow digestion, both of which cue mechanisms signaling the body that it has had sufficient food. The environment is identified, especially in sections suggesting reductions in consumption of meat and dairy products.

By my count, the word consumer does not appear in the publication. That can’t be an accident because a major purpose of the guide is to enable and empower eaters to take charge of their health and well-being through food actions. Eaters are not just treated as shoppers, charged with the buying, preparing and eating of health foods. Everyone is encouraged to reclaim food skills to healthy citizenship.

The guide is designed for a partnership and collaboration betwen governments, health professionals and citizen activists. “As a citizen acting collectively, much can be done,” as section of “what you can do” concludes. “As a member of a community group or civil society organization you can advocate and campaign for fiscal and other statutory public policies that protect farmers and the price of their produce so these remain absolutely and relatively cheap, and that make ultra-processed foods relatively expensive.”

This is not a recipe for government action, but for popular engagement and mobilization – as absent in traditional liberalism and social democracy as in neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism.

Government, however, is assigned the role of protecting citizen rights, especially the human right to food which is entrenched in Brazil’s constitution. Several sections of the report draw attention to ads promoting ultra-processed foods to children, which account for two-thirds of television advertising, and suggest that such dominance of the airwaves violates requirements for advertising accuracy and protection of children’s rights to decide their own eating future.

In April, 2014, Brazil’s federal government abolished all forms of advertising to children, defining ads that target children as abusive and therefore illegal.

An agenda for federal policy connecting food to health, equity, human rights and the environment in an industrially advanced country has now been modeled. The days when food could be sidelined from such issues and slotted as a strictly nutritional matter bearing on physical health are drawing to an end.

Wayne Roberts is a visiting scholar with New College at the University of Toronto, and author of the No-Nonsense Guide to World Food.

 Photo: Flickr/Fernando Stankuns

A photo of Wayne Roberts

Wayne Roberts

Wayne Roberts was best known for his leadership of the Toronto Food Policy Council during the years from 2000 to 2010. After retiring from the paid workforce, he served on boards of several food charities...