Bela Gil has gained social importance in Brazil due to her manner of speaking, simplicity, on a subject that up to now has been neglected by the majority of people: food awareness and healthiness.
She always exudes cheerfulness and friendliness, two notable traits in her personality, Bela shares recipes on television shows; blending common ingredients, used daily, such as vegetables unknown by most of the population.
She has published four books and has a successful YouTube channel from the notoriety acquired from her television show – there are almost 390 thousand subscribers, as well as invitations for publicity spots and lectures around the world.
Her work makes noise on social media – sometimes people are surprised by her recipes – and poking critiques at governments and companies. Something commonplace for those who speak publicly on a subject that goes contrary to customs and the status quo.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) started to pay attention to her message. She was at the organization’s headquarters in Rome, in June speaking about the role of leaders in transforming food supply systems.
As a defender of agroecology, she acts as a food activist and fights to end waste, as well as other important issues. Currently, she lives with her family in Italy, where she studies for her master’s degree on “Food, Culture, and Mobility,” currently she writes for newspapers and magazines, and prepares for her upcoming TV seasons and programs.
Bela spoke about food democratization, the role of Brazil eradicating hunger, food waste, food insecurity and its relationship to the food industry with ATLANTICO.
ATLANTICO – What is the first step in democratizing food?
Bela Gil – The answer lies in an agreement between civil society, consumers of food, producers, large corporations and the government. There are the public sector, the private sector, and civil society. I think a lot of people already know what the solution is for us to democratize healthy eating. The problem is that civil society demands, and sometimes, the government blocks. And when the government wants to implement something, corporations block it. So, it has no common accord because economic power sometimes speaks louder than people’s health and life.
ATLANTICO – Of these factors, which are the ones that have the greatest weight?
Bela Gil – I think the government can start making drastic changes to the food system. Let me give you an example. In Brazil, under the Lula administration, we had the Zero Hunger program, which was a program that managed to get Brazil out of the hunger map. I think it is a good thing for the government to start taxing ultra-processed and high sugar products. I also think it is necessary to end the subsidy for pesticides and for large monocultures. This would already be another important step because it would encourage agro-ecological production. Trade and consumption of these foods would become more accessible both geographically and physically. With these measures, the government could already change the food system so everyone has access to healthy food.
ATLANTICO – Speaking of Zero Hunger, we know that Brazil is a leader in meat exports and is one of the largest producers in several agricultural crops. What is Brazil’s role in transforming the world’s food culture? How do you evaluate Brazil’s weight in this process?
Bela Gil – In Brazil, almost 40% of the GDP economy comes from agribusiness, from these large soybean and meat exports. Society as a whole pay for it. There are many externalities of food production that we need to start putting on paper, such as indigenous lives, water pollution, wildlife, and deforestation. These costs are real. Brazil, as a major producer and exporter, must implement these costs. Maybe the money we make does not make up for it. Let’s look at it another way, let’s understand better what kind of development we want because economic development says very little about a country. We need human development, social development. We want fresh air; we want to eat well; we want education. I think that if Brazil puts this into practice, and as an agenda, it can be a great step forward for other producing countries to change their way of dealing with the economy.
We want fresh air, we want to eat well, we want education
ATLANTICO – Industrially supplied food, with excess sugars, fats and carbohydrates have earned the nickname of Big Food. What are the strategies of this industry and how to deal with the risks of this type of food?
Bela Gil – It’s very simple and very complex at the same time. Simple because it has been revealed in the last decade how the sugar industry has stopped several studies mentioning the fact that sugar is a major provocateur of diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart problems. They took the focus off the sugar and threw it in the fat. In fact, the biggest culprit in this great epidemic of obesity that we live today is sugar. We need to be very attentive in relation to food marketing and also in the relationship between food and health. There are traps like studies that say chocolate is good for the heart. Whoever paid for this study may have been a chocolate industry, like Nestle. For chocolate to be very good for the heart, we may have to eat 100% cocoa chocolate and in small quantities. That goes for the market as well. You can buy a candy bar in the United States and find a seal written “approved by the association of cardiologists” as a cholesterol-lowering food. It’s a lot of marketing. The pharmaceutical and the food industries converse a lot between each other. They put these traps on top of us to make money. Therefore, we need to be very attentive to all of this. It is important not to believe in anything without reading more deeply. Messages such as “this food heals this, that food heals that” is usually sponsored by a large industry, whether it is food or medicine.
ATLANTICO – You showed support on the new frontal labeling model, that is already in action in Chile. Can such measures help to change people’s mindsets?
Bela Gil – I think in some ways yes. The concept changed and facilitated how the consumer chooses their food in Chile, which has had a significant drop in the consumption of ultra-processed foods. People would be more selective, in my point of view. This could be very good but we need to understand only processed and industrialized food will need it. Normal, non-processed food will not. So, I think the only problem in maintaining focus on the labeling is that it can be a way of endorsing the consumption of ultra-processed food. I believe the objective must always be to avoid these little packages, even if the product has no warning in front. It is more important to educate the consumer to eat real food and avoid ultra-processed foods. However, as we know, these products will continue to be made and it is difficult to combat against them. That is why I think the frontal labeling can help the consumer make more conscious choices.
ATLANTICO – Why does the Brazilian waste so much food?
Bela Gil – I think it comes from the typical Brazilian culture, which is the culture of abundance. We are looked at as the barn of the world. We have very fertile land. Pero Vaz da Caminha used to say “planting here, everything works”. We have this culture in which we believe everything is easy. From a culture of abundance comes food waste. There is also a lack of knowledge of what we can do, how we can make better use of the food.
ATLANTICO – How do you evaluate the increase of hunger in the world? And what impact did it have on the African continent?
Bela Gil – Africa is in a state much worse than Brazil. This is because Brazil still has the advantage of not being as affected by climate change as Africa. With so many changes, the farmers are in the hands of the environment. This results in a lack of food production and hunger, obviously. It also causes this wave of emigration we are seeing today. All this is closely related to our current food system, which produces food to feed the entire population of the world. We are 7.9 billion and we produce food for 9 billion people. Yet, the food does not reach the plate of those who need it. And that’s because we have a flawed distribution system. Food distribution and production are being done in the wrong way, in a way that does not achieve the goal of feeding the population as a whole. I think this is because we have the production and distribution of food in the hands of a few very powerful people. We have to democratize the production and distribution of food. As long as we have few people, corporations and governments taking care of food production and we don’t prioritize food sovereignty – so that farmers choose what to produce, how to produce and in the best way –we will surely still be hungry in the world.
ATLANTICO – Is the future of food healthy? What are the main trends in this regard?
Bela Gil – We think a lot about high technologies. And usually scientific fiction technologies, etc. I think we can use technology to understand the traditions of our ancestors in relation to the production of food. Agroecology is proof of this; it is nothing more than a collection of ecological ways of growing food that our ancestors had. We can look back and understand how these people used the land, planted, consumed food and use their way of production. This ancestral technology can be used in a modern context and we can improve it with the tools we have available to us today. We have everything we need to be able to feed the world in a sustainable and efficient way. The reason why we don’t is because there is no political will for it today. The answer is there. I see the future of food a lot whilst looking back at the past – not to go back, but as a rescue of the past for us to improve the future. I believe a lot in real food, in food grown in the earth. I think it’s related to the appreciation of the earth’s culture. We don’t have to think of labs, vertical gardens, we don’t have to think of this as the solution, the food revolution. I think we need to look at the land, the producer and the seed. With this as a priority, we move forward and reach the goal for a healthier future.
ATLANTICO – How do I get someone to start eating healthy today? What is the first step: read more, know where the food comes from?
Bela Gil – A simple and basic tip is to exchange the supermarket for the market. We need to unpack less and peel more, this is a phrase I love. Eat more fruits, more vegetables, have an herbal diet. This makes us have a greater connection with our foods. There is no point in being passionate about food and not understanding anything about how it is made, where it came from, and what its impacts on society are. When you start eating more food coming from the soil, from nature, you become closer to it. The way we approach everyday nature is to eat real food. Once you trade the ultra-processed, the industrialized, the little packages in general for these foods, these natural ingredients as close to the Earth as possible, your diet changes completely. Your health changes completely. So, the first step is to trade the supermarket for the fair.
ATLANTICO – You are in favor of more rigorous disclosure of ultra-processed and industrialized foods in defense of a more natural diet. This narrative of yours often goes against the industry. How has the market, including the publicist, reacted to your speech?
Bela Gil – My role is always to improve everyone’s life. I am not intimidated by either sector regarding what I say or what I think and I find it very good. If I talk and they worry it’s because I’m saying something that is good for the consumer, good for the health of the population because we know that most of them think about profit, after all they are companies. Usually, the profit of these companies goes against the health of the population. With my speech, with my recipes, with the attention consumers give to what I say, people look for food that I advertise. Industries are thinking about this and are changing. Today, in any popular supermarket you can already find, for example, coconut oil and millet which used to be much harder to find. I started making almond milk and coconut milk on my TV show. Today any supermarket has boxed almond milk to sell. So, they are alert and if this is my role to have to be boring, to have to bother them to change, I will continue to be.
Bela Gil’s name at birth was Isabela Giordano Gil Moreira, and she was born in Salvador and grew up in Rio de Janeiro. She became interested in the physical and mental benefits of healthy culinary when she started practicing yoga. She also was strongly influenced by her father, the musician Gilberto Gil, who has adhered to the macrobiotic philosophy since the 1970s.
At 18, she moved to New York, where she lived for almost eight years. She graduated in Natural Culinary from the Natural Gourmet Institute and in Food Science and Nutrition at Hunter College. When studying the Ayurveda philosophy, she discovered that food choices affect not only our health but also the entire planet.
She acted as a personal chef for her closest friends and became an intern at two popular vegan restaurants in Manhattan: the Candle Café and Candle 79 while she sought further knowledge and experience.
In 2013, Bela returned to Rio and started working as a food advisor professional.
Among other activities, she also created the “Bela Infância” (Childhood) project, seeking to combat childhood obesity through educational initiatives with children in public and private schools throughout Brazil.
In collaboration with Emanuel de Macêdo