US-style 'obesogenic' diet being exported to poor countries, says UN expert

| 14th March 2012
An obesogenic diet

Traditional healthy diets are being replaced by more processed and junk foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar

The West is exporting diabetes and heart disease to poor countries, along with the processed foods that line the shelves of global supermarkets warns UN advisor Olivier De Schutter

While obesity is firmly embedded in countries like the US, UK and Europe with as much as 40 per cent of the population classified as obese, the rates are set to rise in poorer countries previously unaffected by the obesity epidemic.

In these countries, traditional healthy diets, made up of grains, beans, vegetables, fresh fruit and animal products are being replaced by more processed and junk foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar.

According to a report from UN food advisor Olivier De Schutter, the shift has reduced the opportunities for local farmers to sell their produce, who lose out to agribusiness giants dominating the global trade in unhealthy foods.

What's more, the same countries are often found to be exporting healthy fruits and vegetables to rich countries and importing expensive processed foods in their place, backed up by heavy advertising by global food corporations.

The result is that by 2030, more than 5 million people in poor countries will die each year before they reach 60 years old from non-communicable diseases linked to poor diet. A costly health burden for poorer countries.

'As the unhealthy diets already common in the United States spread to poorer nations, so do the health problems associated with those diets. However, unlike wealthy nations, poorer nations are not equipped to deal with the health consequences via medicine, making preventable diet-related health problems more deadly,' he says.

For some fast-growing economies like India and China the warnings may already be too late, with analysts predicting obesity and diabetes could overwhelm their respective health care systems.

Schutter also cites the example of Mexico which once had a diet described by nutritionists as near perfect but, now has the second highest rates of obesity in the world after the US. The signing of a free trade agreement with the US and Canada saw a massive increase in direct foreign investment in the country's food processing sector in the 1990s and 2000s making junk food and soft drinks available to a larger number of people.

Corporate food giants like Coca-Cola, Nestle and Unilever are increasingly targeting poorer countries as they seek to maintain sales growth. The result, say observers, is a 'hidden hunger' where low-nutrient, cheap, empty calorie foods is used to satisfy short-term hunger but not meet the body's long-term nutritional needs.

In response, Schutter, the UN's special rapporteur for food, calls for restrictions and taxes on foods high in fats, salt and sugar like soft drinks. He argues for a ban on direct advertising and targeted marketing of junk foods to children. Large subsidies, such as the EU's billion-pound Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) which supports the production of cheap grains and profits agribusiness giants, should be phased out. Also, local, small-scale farmers in poorer countries should be supported through better access to urban markets.

'Heavy processing thrives in our global food system, and is a win-win for multinational agri-food companies. Processed items can be produced and distributed on a huge scale, thanks to cheap subsidised ingredients and their increased shelf life,' says Schutter.

'But for the people, it is a lose-lose. Heavily processed foods leads to diets richer in saturated and trans-fatty acids, salts and sugars with children becoming hooked on the junk foods targeted at them.'

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