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Weighing The Price Of Latin America's Soft Drink Epidemic

The sweet (and unhealthy) underbelly of the region's economic growth.

Jarritos, a popular brand of sodas in Mexico
Jarritos, a popular brand of sodas in Mexico
Hector Cancino Salas

BUENOS AIRES - Just as many Latin American countries are leading the world in economic growth, they are also leading in other, not so positive aspects, like soft drink consumption.

According to a study published by market research firm Euromonitor International, Argentina, Chile and Mexico are the top three consumers of sodas and soft drinks in the world, with Uruguay ranking seventh.

These figures show the huge impact the beverage industry has had on the Latin American continent, to the point where it has become entrenched in people’s everyday habits.

There are multiple reasons for this phenomenon. Jaime Gatica, general manager for the National Soft Drink Association of Chile (Anber), says “the last two years have been a positive period for the sale of beverages in Chile.” He believes that this is due in part to the “growing economy and low unemployment rate, two factors that have had an effect on the increase in soft drink consumption.”

Nevertheless, while some may be celebrating these statistics, others are highlighting their negative impact, and stressing that it is important to be attentive to the severe problems that come with high soda consumption. Primarily, the relationship that exists between the consumption of sugary drinks and obesity, and its direct link with the deterioration of individual health and the public costs that accompany it.

Sebastian Laspiur from Argentina’s health ministry says, “We have an extremely high consumption rate of soft drinks, which comes at a price. It has created an epidemic of rising childhood and adult obesity in Argentina.”

Given the situation, it seems urgent to ask ourselves about the actions governments are taking to remedy the situation. Jonas Feliciano from Euromonitor says “high sugar consumption and obesity are a concern throughout the world. Consumers have registered this concern by switching to "light" or calorie-free sodas.”

Argentina ranks top of the Euromonitor survey, with an average consumption of 131 liters of soft drinks per capita per year. There is a clear preference for colas, which represent 62.4% of total soft drink consumption, of which only 15.41% were “light” drinks.

Chile comes in second, with 121 liters annually, and only 9.64% of them low-calorie. These numbers inspired the creation and implementation of a new program, called Elige Vivir Sano (Choose to Live a Healthy Life”). The program’s director, Pauline Kantor, says there is a “high percentage of the Chilean population with weight and obesity problems, which causes more than 7,800 deaths a year.”

In Mexico, Coca Cola, which was first introduced in 1898, is now the most important beverage company in the country. Today 119 liters are consumed annually, only slightly lower than Chile. However, Mexico is the country that consumes the most cola drinks, which represent 66.36% of soft drinks.

Beating North America at its game

And this is how these three countries keep Latin America on the frontline of soft drink consumption. Incredibly, they all surpass the North-American average of 108.4 liters annually per person.

In the region, the country with the lowest consumption of sodas is Costa Rica, with 33.5 liters per capita, well below the Latin America average of 78.7 liters.

The rest of the countries in the region mentioned in the survey are: Brazil with 67.2 liters, Guatemala with 67.1, Dominican Republic 61.1, Venezuela 55.2 liters, Bolivia 53.4, Colombia 50.6, Peru 50.0 and Ecuador with 46.1 liters per person annually.

The country that deals with the health risks associated with soft drink consumption best is undoubtedly Chile, with its Elige Vivir Sano program, launched in 2011.

However, Kantor acknowledges that “there is no direct policy in regard to soda consumption, but rather a broad program, which targets salt, sugar and fat consumption.” The first objective of the program, she says, is to raise awareness.

In Argentina, the health ministry is also aware of this worrying trend, even though there is no entity or institution specifically in charge of addressing the issue. According to Laspiur, “the beverage industry’s marketing strategies, advertising and market positioning have transformed soft drinks from something that was reserved for celebrations and social events to something that is found every day on the tables of Argentine families.”

Feliciano concurs, saying that the increase in soda consumption will continue, because of “heavy marketing targeted at a wide range of consumers, making sure that soft drinks can be bought everywhere.”

Laspiur says the issue is on the agenda of the government, adding that despite disagreements and pressures – both from the corporate and political world – regulations in this regard are expected to be finalized soon. These regulations include limits on advertising, special taxes and reducing the size of portions.

In parallel, the industry seems be playing – albeit minimally – its part. Many companies have started offering drinks with less sugar and calories.

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