Junk food is highly profitable because of low production cost and long shelf life.Poor nations are now the world’s biggest junk food consumers, with millions of people rapidly shifting from healthier traditional diets to cheap western processed foods linked to obesity, a new study says.
A paper published in the online science journal PLoS has accused some of the world’s biggest food and beverage manufacturers – including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cadbury Schweppes – of being “leading vectors”, or carriers, for a global spread of obesity.
The study, which compared data from 80 countries, found developing nations had the highest rate of increased consumption of soft drink and unhealthy western-style processed foods high in salt, fat and sugar. By comparison, little or no further consumption growth in these “unhealthy commodities” was expected in wealthier nations, creating a “perverse incentive” for manufacturers to expand markets in poorer countries.
The study, by scientists from Britain, India and the United States, argues local farmers and food sellers frequently “cannot compete with multinational firms” and are forced out of business. As a result, a developing nation’s food systems are forced to depend on processed food imports and investments from “large multinational processed food firms”, with the result that diets shift toward the cheaper but less healthy choices provided by convenience foods.
The paper claims opening up markets in developing nations to free trade and foreign investment is creating a “dietary dependency” on processed food and soft drinks, leading to health problems such as obesity. An analysis of food and beverage sales in 80 countries revealed consumption of soft drinks, sweetened juices and other junk food is increasing in developing countries at a much faster rate than has been tracked in the US over the past 50 years.
The study found free trade agreements could be linked to a 63 per cent increase in soft drink consumption. The biggest increase in per capita occurred in Vietnam and India, where soft drink consumption rates have doubled. Mexico has the highest consumption rate of soft drinks – more than 300 litres per person a year – and also has the world’s second-highest rate of childhood obesity. In Egypt, China and Morocco, soft drink consumption has risen by 50 per cent.
The paper argues junk foods and soft drinks “are highly profitable” because of low production costs and long-shelf life. This created “perverse incentives” for multinational food companies to target developing countries as major areas for market expansion, despite health risks linked to junk food and soft drinks.
“Economic development pushes populations through a nutritional transition from under-nutrition to over-nutrition, shifting food preferences from traditional diets characterised by low salt, saturated fat and glycaemic indexes to less healthy, complex diets that lead to obesity,” the study said.
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