In spite of the valiant efforts of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition, the Pan American Health Organisation, The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), the UWI and multiple civil society organisations, the obesity-fuelled epidemic of obesity-related chronic diseases continues to grow, with horrendous morbidity, mortality and a vast economic burden.

A recently proved or evidence-based approach to reducing unhealthy food consumption is the use of warning labels on the front of food products. These simple octagonal labels saying “High in salt” or “High in saturated fat” would quickly inform shoppers of “less than healthy” foods. They can be a key tool of a comprehensive approach to help combat obesity and the burden of chronic non-communicable diseases.

Caribbean people are eating far too many processed and ultra-processed foods and far too few fresh fruits and vegetables. There has seen a dramatic transition from healthy fresh produce to unhealthy diets dominated by widely available, heavily marketed, processed and ultra-processed foods, which are high in sugars, sodium (salt), trans and saturated fats and other additives. These foods, high in these critical substances, result in excess calorie and salt intake and lead to obesity and its many life threatening chronic diseases and some cancers.

Many if not most processed foods comply only theoretically with requirements to indicate ingredients, with print that is most often too small to read except with a magnifying glass, and the long list of ingredients and additives means little to anyone but a nutritionist. There is now good evidence, including that from studies in Chile and Jamaica, that octagonal front-of-package warning labels (FOPWLs) dramatically enhance the ability of shoppers to choose healthy alternatives. They are a brilliant initiative, now proved to work.

Healthy diets mean healthy citizens, vast savings in health care expenditure and a healthier economy in every way. The need for such warning labels is now urgent, and will encourage more local food production and more local manufacture, and hence more employment, all feeding into a healthier, wealthier nation. Barbadians need to support efforts to have octagonal nutritional warning labels on the front of packaged products.

Professor Emeritus Sir Henry Fraser