Diabetes Association: ‘Regulate fast food ads, bring new taxes’

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

President of the Diabetes Association of TT Dr Andrew Dhanoo – File photo by Jeff K Mayers

A recent Diabetes Association of Trinidad and Tobago (DATT) survey found some 88.4 per cent of young people between the ages of 11 and 35 in Trinidad and Tobago consume fast food once a week, with over one-third of this group doing so more than three times in the same period.

The finding has led the association to call for a comprehensive approach to get the products out of schools and communities, including bans on advertising and taxes to discourage consumption.

The alarming revelation came from the DATT in a release as it threw its support behind Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, who on Monday, called out popular fast food chains such as KFC, Royal Castle, and Coca-Cola for their role in encouraging the scourge of non-communicable diseases like diabetes and hypertension in the country with its products.

Conducted in 2023, 954 people between 11 and 35 years old participated in the survey.

It showed that the demographic gravitated to these foods and drinks for their taste, convenience and cost.

Topping the survey of popularly consumed fast food were KFC and doubles with 88 per cent and 78 per cent of respondents, respectively. They were followed by Chinese food at 72 per cent, Subway at 68 per cent, Church’s Chicken at 65 per cent, Royal Castle at 63 per cent, Pizza Hut at 61 per cent, barbecue at 59 per cent and gyros/burgers at 54 per cent.

Furthermore, despite universally accepted recommendations suggesting the consumption of four to five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, the survey results showed citizens were far from meeting this.

It found that only 23 per cent of respondents met the target for vegetable intake and a mere 13 per cent did for fruit.

Even more concerning, over half of respondents failed to include a fruit or vegetable in their diet on more than one day of a typical week. The survey also found the most popular soft drinks among the demographic was “black soft drinks” with over 75 per cent consuming soft drinks at least twice in a typical week.

The release from the DATT said the findings paint a concerning picture of dietary trends among the youth in Trinidad and Tobago towards unhealthy ultra-processed foods. The association said it signals a need for concerted efforts to promote healthier eating habits and address the underlying factors contributing to these choices. Against this backdrop, the DATT commended the minister for calling out the companies by name on Monday.

“His recognition of the role international fast-food brands play in feeding this addiction underscores a growing concern that demands immediate action. The Minister’s naming of these popular brands for the first time deserves high praise.”

The DATT reaffirmed its commitment to support the government in implementing regulations, policies, and legislation aimed at reducing the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

“Our dedication to this cause is rooted in the alarming rise in diabetes and other NCDs, which are significantly impacted by dietary choices.”

It went further to draw on strategies discussed at the July 2023 Healthy Caribbean Coalition (HCC), “Accelerating the Removal of Ultra-Processed Products From Caribbean Schools – The Food in Our Schools Matters” to remove these products from schools and communities.

Among the strategies it called for to be implemented were better front-of-label packaging, regulations to ban advertising these products to children and the introduction of taxes to discourage consumption.

It also called for enhancing the infrastructure and policies that support the production, distribution, and marketing of fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods to create an environment that encourages and facilitates healthier eating habits.

“The DATT is particularly concerned about the impact of ultra-processed foods on our youth and working-age population. Focusing on young people, the largest and most vulnerable segment of our population, on marketing tactics is crucial.”

In May 2023, Deyalsingh raised the issue of how fast food is marketed to children at the 76th World Health Organisation World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, likening the strategies to those once used to promote cigarettes to children.

A month later, in June 2023, Deyalsingh met with representatives from major fast-food restaurants about providing healthier options on their menus.

They were supposed to meet with the minister after a month or two of discussions to present ideas but there has been no word since whether the meeting took place.

Newsday understands major fast-food chains are currently discussing the minister’s recent comments.