Eating western, dying western?

by Cesar Revoredo-Giha, SRUC
Wednesday, 22 October 2014 14:30 GMT

Cans of soda are displayed in a case at Kwik Stops Liquor in San Diego, California, on February 13, 2014. REUTERS/Sam Hodgson

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As western diets move to the developing world, their diseases are moving with them

The links between non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as heart disease and diabetes, and food consumption are now well established.

Numerous studies have shown that, in combination with sedentary lifestyles, diets that contain excessive salt, sugar or fat are associated with higher risks of developing certain types of cancer and cardiovascular disease. The effects of NCDs are well known and range from their impact on economic aspects such as the public budget and productive life to citizens’ wellbeing.

While the increasing trend in NCDs in developed countries is given plenty of media attention, this is not the case for the developing countries, where the presence of the Ebola and AIDS is capturing most of it.

Nevertheless, developing countries are now following similar trends as developed countries as their economies grow and consumers’ purchasing power improves. Thus consumers can afford a more diverse and often unhealthy diet as part of the westernisation of their lifestyles.

As a recent article in the Lancet pointed out, economic growth seems to be strongly correlated with rising consumption of unhealthy commodities.

One of those changes in consumption patterns is, for instance, the expansion in the consumption of sugary soft drinks.

They serve as affordable luxuries (the author of this piece and colleagues were greeted with bottles of a well-known soft drink when visiting a cooperative in Malawi). In many cases, soft drinks are more affordable than bottled water (tap water is not safe) and they are a widely established beverage.

HOW TO EAT BETTER

To combat the development of NCDs, governments in developed countries have been pursuing nutritional policies to change consumers’ habits and lead them to healthier food consumption behaviours. There are different options available, with various levels of effectiveness.

From the consumer side, which has been the most popular side for governments’ initiatives in developed countries, policies have tried to affect consumers’ choice through the provision of nutritional information in the shape of advice or labelling products.

In addition, there has been an attempt to influencing consumers’ choice by the use of taxation to specific food components such as fats or sugar or directly to some products like soft drinks. In developing countries the potential of these policies is even more challenging due to issues such as education and poverty.

One group that can also play a role on the promotion of good nutrition is supermarkets. Their expansion in developing countries has been well documented.

Together with the benefits that they bring, such as organisation of the local supply chain and the imposition of quality standards, they have also increased the availability and accessibility to unhealthy foods, such as highly processed and high-fat foods, replacing less refined and more nutrient rich foods.

However, they can also play a role educating consumers. For instance, in a recent visit to Peru, I found a supermarket with signs explaining the benefits of different foods such as dairy or vegetables in terms of nutrition.  

On the supply side (this is, what firms can do) strategies have not been much encouraged by governments. These policies may be divided into two major ones, new product development (this is issuing to the market new products with healthy characteristics such as sugar-free products or fat-free products, one recent example being Coca Cola Life) and reformulation of existing products to reduce the content of saturated fats, sugar or salt.

The strategy of new product development to improve nutrition is very much part of how the food industry operates and competes. In fact, despite the fact that a high percentage of new products do not survive the market test, firms (that is, manufacturing firms through branded products or supermarkets through their private label products) engage in the expensive business of introducing new products in search of those that will gain consumers’ favour.

Developing countries are an open field for the introduction of new food products (healthy and unhealthy) and here the trade-off between economic growth and the introduction of healthy and nutritious products is even more substantive as the investments done by food and drink multinationals bring expansion of employment and support to, for instance, sustainable agriculture.

The other supply side strategy so far has been reformulating existing products; basically this means modifying their content of salt, sugar or saturated fats. So far this seems to be the most effective option to improve the nutritional situation and there is no reason why this cannot operate in developing countries.

Certainly, changes in saturated fats or sugar content may impact on products’ flavour and therefore affect the demand; however this is a good way in which a compromise between economic growth and improvement in nutrition could be potentially achieved. Of course, this would require support from governments and willingness from firms.

Cesar Revoredo-Giha is a senior economist and team leader for food marketing research at the Land Economy, Environment and Society Research Group at Scotland’s Rural College in Edinburgh.