Mandatory food labeling and dental healthBy Rafael Castillo M.D.
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Dr. Vic Medina III, dean of the University of the Philippines College of Dentistry, e-mailed some comments on the mandatory food labeling measure we wrote about in last week’s column. The measure is being proposed now by the Department of Health, in collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration.
His college is supporting many health advocates in the medical community in supporting the advocacy for a full disclosure of the content of foods and drinks sold to the public.
“As dentists, we are very much concerned with the sugar content of food and drinks. With mandatory labeling in place, we will be able to classify foods and drinks based on their sugar content,” wrote Vic.
His group came out with a policy paper on sugar consumption and it was presented just last week during the National Institute of Health (NIH) anniversary. One of their recommendations is for the DOH and FDA to require mandatory labeling that will include sugar content and not just the amount of calories. Their proposal also includes classifying food and drinks and banning the sale of high sugar-containing food and drinks in the schools.
“We are especially alarmed that soft drinks are still being sold in the public school system despite the issuance of food related policies.” He detailed these Department of Education orders as Memo No. 373 s. 1996: Encouraging the Sale and Consumption of Healthy and Nutritious Food; and DepEd Order No. 14 s. 2005: Instructions to Ensure Consumption of Nutritious and Safe Food in School.
Vic said the prevalence of dental caries has remained high in the Philippines and the intake of sweet foods and drinks is a likely culprit. Schools like St. Paul College in Pasig have already banned the sale of soft dinks in compliance with the DepEd order, but many schools still have to comply.
“The government should do a better job at providing a health-supportive environment by making sure that only nutritious foods and drinks are offered in school canteens,” Vic stressed.
Preventing dental caries
We share the dentists’ concern about preventing dental caries among children. Poor dental health is not as benign and “unserious” as many think they are. There are many reasons to keep our teeth and gums healthy. There are now several published studies showing the correlation between poor oral health and heart disease. Unhealthy, repeatedly swollen gums show an increased risk for heart attacks. People with dental and gum problems show the same inflammatory markers when their blood is checked as people at increased risk of heart attack and stroke demonstrate.
Especially in the elderly, people with poor dental health have even been reported to have a relatively shorter life span than those with good dental health. If children have dental caries and all sorts of dental problems early on, this may be a problem that can be carried on to adulthood.
So we encourage our children to avoid too much sweet foods and drinks not only because healthy teeth and gums look better, but also to make sure they don’t develop other serious problems later on that can shorten their life span. We’re happy to note the strong support given by the UP College of Dentistry to this advocacy of mandatory food labeling. We hope the rest of the medical, dental and healthcare community can likewise support this as well.
Corollary to this, Dr. Tony Leachon, consultant for noncommunicable diseases of the DOH, said in his lecture before nutritionists and dieticians recently that the DOH is really determined to push for the implementation of the “Mandatory Food Labeling Law,” requiring a more visible cautionary warning on the amount of calories, sugar and fats each product contains.
Traffic light format
They also plan to use the “traffic light” format seen in products in the United Kingdom. Each product will have traffic light colors that accompany it: green for low sugar/calories, orange or yellow for midlevel sugar/calories, and red for high sugar/calories. This will also be implemented in menus in coffee shops and restaurants.
The DOH is also currently implementing the “Belly Gud for Health Challenge” program patterned from the reality show, “Biggest Loser,” wherein participants who lost the most inches in their stomach width will get a prize.
A third related health measure is the “Pinggan ng Kalusugan,” the Filipino version of US First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Choose My Plate” campaign, which defines what a healthy meal consists of—a moderate proportion of fruits, grains, vegetables, protein and dairy.
All these measures can certainly go a long way in educating the public and providing them constant reminders to consistently make healthy choices in what they eat, drink and do.