Mayra Hernández, a store owner in Oaxaca, in front of bags of chips that now carry warning labels. (VICE)
OAXACA, Mexico — Thousands of tourists flock to this bohemian, temperate city every year, lured by one thing: food.
In a country known for its great cuisine, Oaxaca’s reputation ranks at the very top. The food here is delicious, plentiful and, by American standards, cheap. But while international tourists crave native corn varieties and other regional ingredients, Oaxaca’s local residents, like in the rest of the country, are gobbling up cheap, ultra-processed food.
Corner stores are filled with soda, potato chips and candy. And that’s what kids want. It’s filling, cheap and modern — a break from decades of tradition in a country that simultaneously puts Indigenous people on a pedestal and discriminates against them.
The taste for junk food, in addition to increasingly unhealthy diets, has fueled an obesity crisis in Mexico. One third of kids are obese, and roughly 15 percent of the country’s population has diabetes. The disease is now one of the country’s leading causes of death.
Mexican officials are trying to tackle the problem. In October, new federal regulations went into effect requiring warning labels on processed food and drink. If you try and buy a soft drink, bag of chips, or even a sugary juice, you’ll encounter a huge octagon label warning of “EXCESS SUGAR” or “EXCESS SODIUM” in capital letters.
The state of Oaxaca has gone a step further, and last year banned the sale of junk food to kids altogether.
“Parents have the responsibility of giving their children healthy food. But having access to nutritious food is also a human right,” said Magaly Lopéz, a Oaxaca lawmaker who spearheaded the junk food ban. “Healthy, nutritious food is critical to children’s physical and mental development. And the state also has to ensure that this type of food reaches them.”
It’s too soon to say whether the ban is having an effect. There are no financial penalties for stores that sell junk food to children in violation of the law. There is some evidence, however, that warning labels work. Chile started requiring them in 2016, and the sale of sodas plunged by nearly 25 percent.
But getting people to change their eating habits is going to require more than flashy warning labels and unenforced crackdowns, said Charlynne Curiel, a social anthropologist who studies food habits and practices.
“There is an association of status that makes people think [processed food] is better; that it’s easier and makes you more modern, and that you’ve left old traditions behind,” Curiel said. “We need to recognize that anything associated with Indigenous tradition is going to be undervalued and belittled.”