Colombia introduces tax on ultra-processed foods

7 Dec 2023

In a bid to curb rates of obesity and other non-communicable disease, the Colombian government has introduced a tax on various ultra-processed food (UPF) and drink products.

The “Ley 2277” defined in English as the ‘Healthy Tax on Ultra-Processed Food and Beverages (Tax Reform)’ imposes a tax on a range of ultra-processed food and beverages, starting from November 2023 and rising incrementally each year thereafter. This includes the likes of carbonated and non-carbonated beverages, coffee-type beverages, fruit drinks and nectars, energy drinks, sausages and cold cut meats, chocolates and confectionery candies, snacks, bakery products, and breakfast cereals.

Colombia introduces tax on ultra-processed foods
Pictured: The Colombian National Congress & Capitol | © iStock/diegograndi

Originally passed in December 2022, the law came into force in on 1 November 2023. For beverages, the tax rate will be measured against added sugar content, increasing annually in three phases with stricter thresholds coming into play in 2025. In 2023, the tax for products containing six to 10 grams of added sugar per 100ml will amount to Col$18 and Col$35 for more than 10 grams. In 2024, this will rise to Col$28 and Col$55, respectively. Various beverages such as plain water, 100% fruit or vegetable juice, and infant formula are exempt from the law.

The law also introduces a levy of 10% on UPFs, defined as “edible products formulated from food-derived substances along with additives, that contain added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats” exceeding accepted nutrient thresholds. This tax will be applied from November 2023 and will rise to 15% in 2024 and 20% in 2025. These thresholds are less than 1 mg of sodium per 1 kcal and/or less than 300 mg of sodium per 100 g; 10% of total energy from free sugars; and less than 10% of total energy form saturated fats.

Taking a strong stance against junk food, this move makes Colombia one of the first countries globally to impose taxes on UPFs.

Manufacturers struggle to keep pace with changing regulations

This regulation builds on the "Ley 2120 contra la Comida Chatarra" or ‘Junk Food Law’ which imposes a set of limitations on the advertising, sale, and marketing of food and drink products classed as “industrially manufactured”, as well as those high in saturated fat, sugar, and salt.

“There is no such definition [of ‘industrially processed’] in the law, but the resolution that implements the provisions from the Law, introduced the concept of minimally processed foods, processed foods, ultra-processed foods. These definitions were taken from [Pan American Health Organization] PAHO definitions,” said Eugenia Muinelo, manager of regulatory affairs at regulatory consultancy EAS Strategies.

When first introduced in July 2021, the Junk Food Law set forward the obligation for food and beverage manufacturers to include front-of-pack (FOP) warning labels relating to the excessive content of critical nutrients including sugar, salt, saturated fat, trans fat, and sweeteners, on products. Additionally, the law stated that strategies should be developed to promote healthy environments in schools and across multiple media channels aimed at children under the age of 14 including television, radio, and online platforms during TV advertisements, Muinelo said.

Latin America leads the way in UPF regulation

Latin America is home to many of the world’s leading nations where regulation to curb the consumption of unhealthy, ultra-processed foods is concerned.

“The implementation of the FOP warning labelling model in Colombia seems to be part of a trend in Latin America initiated by Chile in 2016 and followed also by Uruguay, Peru, Mexico, Argentina,” said David Pineda Ereño, managing director at DPE International Consulting.

According to Muinelo, the FOP labelling scheme implemented in Colombia has strong similarities with legislations in place in Mexico and Argentina, with all three using the same PAHO nutrient criteria.

“There are initiatives and proposals to adopt a FOP warning labelling system in other countries in the region. Very recently the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states [went] through a voting exercise to implement the FOP warning labelling system in the region. We are looking forward to having more information on the outcome of the voting,” said Pineda Ereño.

While the latest Colombian legislation aims to support public health by curbing the consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages, it also presents challenges and opportunities for manufacturers to adapt and innovate.

“Manufacturers in Colombia have been provided with a transition period to implement the regulation. However, considering the changes last year, it is quite a challenge to have to change the labels twice,” Pineda Ereño said.

Making junk food less accessible to protect health

Consumption of UPFs is on the rise globally. Across Europe, UPFs account for over a quarter (27%) of the average daily calorie intake, rising to more than half in the UK, US, and Canada, according to the Global Food Research Program.

At around 16%, consumption of UPFs is lower in Colombia than in many Western countries, research published in the Salud Publica Mex journal shows. Nevertheless, three-quarters of children and young people in Colombia consume at least one sugary drink per day and salt consumption amongst Colombian adults stands at one of the highest in the world, government data shows.

The high consumption of UPFs in Colombia is a concern for public health officials, as these foods are often high in calories, sugar, fat, and salt, and are nutrient sparse. Excessive consumption of these products has been proven to contribute to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic illnesses.

The hope is that the new law will curve the consumption of ultra-processed products in Colombia and prevent the contraction of chronic illness.

“Representatives of authorities and academia in Chile and Mexico for example have been presenting information on the impact of the [front-of-pack] FOP warning labelling system in consumers' shopping choices. It remains to be seen the extent to which it may impact on the health of the population,” Pineda Ereño said.

UPFs can also be addictive - research published recently in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) analysing hundreds of studies across multiple countries found that around one in seven (14%) adults and one in eight (12%) children are addicted to UPFs worldwide.

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