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Sat Jun 9, 2012, 04:22 AM

In El Salvador, Tooth Decay Epidemic Blamed on Junk Food

From El Salvador, graduates of the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism -- producer Roberto Daza and correspondent Carl Nasman -- report on an epidemic of tooth decay across the countryside, blamed largely on junk food, soda and a a lack of education about dental care. (Transcript)


CARL NASMAN: Professor Gutierrez and her team of volunteers work on the ground in El Salvador, training health workers and donating supplies.

She estimates that 85 percent of kids in rural areas of El Salvador have tooth decay, and nearly half experience mouth pain, leading to serious problems, like jaw infections, tooth loss, and malnutrition. She puts much of the blame on snack food imported from the United States.

With sales peaking at home, American companies are searching for new markets. In 2009, 25 percent of Coca-Cola's operating profits came from Latin America. And, last year, nearly half of Pepsi's sales were from outside the U.S.

DR. KAREN SOKAL-GUTIERREZ: The marketing of junk food, candy, chips, soda at very low price really takes advantage of the poorest people. So, they're trying to show this image that if you drink soda or eat the junk food, you will be healthy, happy, modern.

CARL NASMAN: But Coke and Pepsi insist their products shouldn't be singled out for the rise in tooth decay.

In a statement for the NewsHour, PepsiCo officials said: "With basic dental hygiene practices, people have enjoyed our products for decades without risk to their dental health."

Coca-Cola officials said: "We believe that parents should decide what their children eat and drink. Any food or beverage containing sugars and starches, including some of our beverages, can contribute to the development of cavities."

CARL NASMAN: But in El Salvador, it's not just imported soda and chips. Local companies also churn out cheap, unhealthy food. The local brand of cola costs less than a quarter. And soda here is supersized. These three-liter bottles are bigger than most you would find in the United States.

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