Wow! It has already been a week and a half since Vena and I arrived in Chile and there is so much that I want to share about our experiences learning about Santiago and the Chilean culture, as well describe the successful completion of our first focus group discussion for our research project.
To start with my first impression of Santiago, I was very much surprised with how few fast food restaurants I saw considering how big of a problem obesity is in Chile. Also, since I was so overwhelmed with the presence of fast food restaurants when I visited Panama this past summer I expected to see the same thing. I quickly learned that although a fast food restaurant wasn’t on every corner, there were plenty of other restaurants or food vendors that are just as bad and very common. For example, street vendors and restaurants dedicated to the sale of the Chilean Completo can be seen everywhere! This Chilean staple is a hot dog that has many different toppings, such as mayonnaise, guacamole, “American” dressing similar to Thousand Island dressing, tomatoes, and many other options depending on the type of completo one buys. Another popular food I’ve become accustomed to see being sold throughout the streets of Santiago is mote con huesillo, which is a cold sweet peach juice with small grains of wheat at the bottom. This is definitely a favorite among Chilenos to beat the heat and cool down during these hot days of “fall”.
“Completo” with just some of the many fixings
“Mote con Huesillo”
During our first few days here in Santiago, I quickly learned about a public health problem that is prevalent among Chileans: smoking. It’s been overwhelming how often we are exposed to smoking throughout the day. On the plus side, health communication regarding the risks of smoking and it’s effect on others are in full force here with very strong warning messages placed on all cigarette packaging and ads located in liquor stores/stands that sell cigarettes. Perhaps greater policy changes need to be made to supplement the health communication campaigns to further tackle the issue.
Health Communication ad against smoking in a local liquor store
As for our research project, our first week gave us the chance to meet our preceptor Dr. Camila Corvalán after months of email correspondence, and it was so exciting to know that our project was finally going to be underway. We worked on finalizing logistical details, such as recruiting participants, creating our focus group guide, scheduling focus group sessions and creating our warning label message examples. We also learned more about the Ministry of Health’s (MINSAL) current interest in the type of warning messages they want to place on food packaging, which consists of an “Alto en X” message, in which “X” represents a specific ingredient or nutrient that a specific food product may have too much of. We are using sodium as our “X” factor, and testing simple messages that explain the content is high in sodium or salt, along with additional messages that explain a health outcome associated with the excessive consumption of salt/sodium or an additional message that is conducive to changing behavior, such as moderating consumption of that specific food product. Additionally, we are going to explore what preferences and opinions our participants have regarding the message’s color combination, message font and location of message on the food package.
We had our first focus group session yesterday, and I was definitely nervous since I had not facilitated such a discussion before, let alone in Spanish! Once the focus group was underway the nine mothers were very open and seemed so comfortable speaking regarding the different topics of nutrition labels and the warning message examples we presented. I think having our first few days to explore the city was key in understanding the vibe of the Chilean people and catching on to how they speak, especially since we would be directly interacting with them through the focus groups. I was able to become at least slightly familiar with words that are common among Chileans. Thankfully, our preceptor arranged for a student from the University of Chile to sit in on our focus group sessions in order to provide additional help and translation incase words specific to Chile were used, such as “catchai” which is used to mean “to understand”. It was definitely a great learning experience and awesome to have had such helpful feedback from the mothers. I can only hope that the rest of the discussions go as well as our first! We’ll keep you updated on how they go!

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