Despite the summertime temperatures, Christmas in Santiago, Chile means plenty of festive decorations adorning stores and products—and seasonal symbols like Santa abound. But one thing you won’t find on shelves in Chile this year is any Santa-fied chocolate or candy. That’s because in October, the country’s highest court banned depictions of Mr. Claus on junk food.
“It’s too much. They look ridiculous,” Camila Reid, a Santiago native, told MUNCHIES recently of the chocolate figures that are pointedly not Santa Claus. She used to buy Christmas chocolates for her nephews, but she added, “if they don’t look like Santa, what’s the point.”
In the Supreme Court’s ruling, a representative from the Chilean Society of Pediatrics was quoted saying that Santa Claus is being used as a “commercial hook” to convince children that unhealthy, high-sugar products are “more tasty.”
Which, according to a relatively new Chilean law, is illegal.
Under the so-called “Food Labeling Law,” which was approved in 2012 and went into full effect in 2016, snack food companies can no longer advertise to minors on television or the internet. Additionally, brands like Kinder are banned from placing toys in their products and are required to remove kid-friendly advertising—which means nixing images of iconic mascots such as Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger; Pringles’ smiling, mustached face; the Easter Bunny; and now Santa Claus.
Prior to the law, children on average in Chile were seeing roughly 8,500 advertisements a year involving high calorie foods and beverages, according to a report compiled by the government.
Senator Guido Girardi, who’s a physician by trade, has been the law’s loudest advocate. “These advertisements are made by kid specialists, by marketing specialists, by business specialists that know how to trick kids; and for me that is equivalent to being the pedophiles of the 21st century because they violate kids who aren't able to defend themselves,” he told MUNCHIES.
Girardi’s passion is inspired by the troubling reality that more than 50 percent of six-year-olds in Chile are obese or overweight, according to a report by the Chilean Ministry of Health. That number is nearly three-fourths for adults.
This problem has serious consequences. According to national data, one in every 11 deaths can be attributed to complications associated with obesity, meaning one obese person in Chile dies every hour. One in eight deaths is a result of high sodium; Chile also has one of the highest consumption of salty snacks and sugary drinks in the world.
Chile hasn’t always had an obesity problem. Prior to the late 80s, the country actually had a high prevalence of malnutrition. But after the military dictatorship fell, that problem completely flipped.
“When you have a country that has been oppressed and impoverished, you have dreams of having what you can’t have,” said Paolo Castro, who heads the country’s Nutrition School.
Castro explained that when he was younger, American brands like McDonald’s, Coca Cola, and Kellogg’s flooded the market and consumers were quickly enamored. McDonald’s offered toys with their meals and Kellogg’s even created a special kids club in which buying certain branded items earned you free entry into children’s movies. At the time, most people in Chile had never left the country, and were eager to acquire products that felt transportive to the world beyond what had been a state of authoritarian rule.
A generation later, the new anti-obesity legislation is trying to consciously curtail that consumption. Among the most impactful requirements of the new law has been the prominently-displayed black labels designating products that exceed the government’s prescribed healthy levels of sugar, salt, calories or saturated fat. And they appear to be working. Castro said that a recent survey showed 70 percent of shoppers reported these labels have changed their buying habits.
Diana Pineda, a mother of two in Santiago, agrees. “At first, I found this law to be somewhat exaggerated,” she said. “But my two-year son wants everything and if he sees some entertaining figure in the store, he will love it without even knowing what is inside. For me, it’s better that these products are no longer enticing him with these catchy figures.”
But Rodrigo Álvarez, who heads AB Chile, the country’s largest lobbyist group for the food and beverage industry, told MUNCHIES that this prohibition around holiday characters like Santa Claus is “extreme” and “absurd”.
“We believe that any rule that seeks to reduce the rates of obesity and overweight should focus on those aspects that really impact such indicators,” he said, adding that traditional festive sweets do not do that. “We need a law that helps improve food habits in its entirety and not a rule that does not allow consumers to differentiate or stigmatizes certain foods.”
AB Chile claims that since the Food Labeling Law passed, 20 percent of the entire industry has modified their products to adhere to the new regulations. Coca-Cola alone, according to their own self-reported numbers, has reformulated 32 of its products to lower the sugar levels. Now only 5 percent of Coke products in Chile have the black mark of high sugar labels.
“We reduced the amount of sugar that went to consumers in our products by 33,000 tons—for a small country that is a lot. It’s very huge,” Daniel Vercelli, the General Manager of Coca-Cola in Chile, told MUNCHIES. “And that was not achieved because we sold less, but by growing and maintaining volume.”
Advocates say it will take years to see whether this law is having an impact on people’s overall health. But in the meantime, many neighboring countries have taken notice. So far, Peru and Ecuador have adopted similar policies and Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay are currently looking into it.
Some of the bigger food and beverage companies, like PepsiCo, continue to push back against these regulations in the courts, claiming that the marketing restrictions infringe on their intellectual property rights. Girardi thinks these lawsuits will ultimately fail, “because I think the entire world is going in the other direction. What do the citizens want? Increasingly more and more they want a decent and healthy life, they don’t want deception.”
The issue of Kris Kringle imagery arose when a retailer who was fined for Santa-shaped chocolates appealed the decision and it wound its way to the top of the Chilean judicial system. There, the Supreme Court ruled that St. Nicholas-style marketing specifically violates this ban on "commercial hooks" designed to make high-calorie junk food appealing to children. Which means—for now if not forever—all the sweets in Chile this season will have to be fully de-Santa-tized.