The Shifting Diets of a Fast-Urbanizing World

The celebrated nutritonist and The World Is Fat author talks about the complex reasons for why the developing world is adopting a more U.S.-like food system.

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In anticipation of the upcoming 2013 Feeding Cities conference in Philadelphia, Next City will run Q&A interviews with three of the event’s speakers about their work in food politics and food justice. This is the first post in the series.

Barry M. Popkin’s work as a nutritionist has spanned from Taiwan to South Africa to Mexico and the U.S. He’s the originator of the “nutrition transition” concept, a model for understanding how globalization has led to widespread changes in people’s diets around the world. A professor at the Univestity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Popkin has become well known for his 2009 book, The World Is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies, and Products That Are Fattening the Human Race, in which he argues how the global food industry has altered the way we eat, drink and move.

Here, Popkin talks about the complex reasons for why developing nations are adopting America-like food systems, and why reverting back to more traditional, nutritional diets en masse is going to be difficult, to say the least.

Next City: You’ve written that you grew up eating in a way that was “typical of the way most Americans handled food in the first half of the 20th century.” How have American eating habits changed since then?


Barry M. Popkin: There are two big trends. One trend is that higher-educated, higher-income America has increasingly adopted a slightly healthier diet. There’s a subset of 5-10 percent of Americans who live a fairly healthy life and have shifted to, let’s call it a “locavore” diet, with a lot less meat and a lot more whole grains and fruits and vegetables. But the biggest shift that happened in America is that in the’50s and ’60s, as we showed in one New England Journal [of Medicine] article, low-educated blacks and whites consumed a very healthy diet: Beans, vegetables, rice, potatoes… very healthy. A low amount of meat, a low amount of butter, a low amount of fat, and a lot of real food and veggies. That crossed over, and their diet got worse in quality as the diet of higher-educated people got better. So by the ’80s and ’90s, the burdens of all nutrition-related diseases were facing the poor, not the rich. That’s one major, broad trend. That’s the biggest.

Then, within that, everybody in America has consumed more and more away-from-home food. Food preparation time has gone from a couple hours a day to 20 minutes a day. We are eating a larger portion of our food from consumer packaged goods, which are processed and contain a whole lot of different kinds of ingredients, many of which are chemicals and other things — enhanced flavor, preservatives, etc. So we’ve shifted in three or four ways. Our whole food system has completely changed.

NC: There has been trend in the past few years toward buying more locally sourced food.

Popkin: That’s the elite. That affects high-income, high-education America. It barely benefits the poor, except when we give subsidies, like WIC or SNAP, to get them to buy from farmers markets, and so on. It’s really [for the] high-educated, high-income. That’s the component that I talked about: The locavores, the super-educated, Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle subgroup.

NC: Do you see that movement becoming more equitable and accessible to people of lower incomes?

Popkin: We’re trying. We try all over. Up until the last couple years — it may have changed in the last two years — but up until then, we have not had a successful farmers market in a low-income area that truly was sustainable without an enormous amount of subsidies. They’re expensive. The food costs are high. Related to that are all the attempts to create healthy bodegas, to put fruits and vegetables in small stores — all of that is part of it. In our research across the country, in three or four fairly high-profile studies, we’ve been unable to find that changes were made from putting a supermarket next to the poor. Now, it may change. We’re learning that it’s not just making [healthy food] available. It also [involves] changing prices, education, training on cooking, a whole lot of other things. But generally speaking, we haven’t yet changed the diet of the poor in cities to be that much healthier.

NC: Let’s talk about nutrition transition for a second. As nations around the globe continue to urbanize at an ever-faster rate, what does this mean for the way the world eats?

Popkin: The way the world eats is that it’s beginning to eat like us. I see more farmers markets in North Carolina than in the whole country of Mexico today. Eighty percent to 85 percent of the peso in Latin America today now goes to consumer packaged goods from convenience stores supermarkets. They don’t go to farmers markets like we have in Philly and Chapel Hill or every place. That’s what’s changing in Latin America, much more rapidly than you would imagine, and changing in the rest of the world in the same way. And the urban world is leading the way, over course.

You take a country like China, which went from no convenience stores in 2002 to a million of them by 2008. Walmart and Carrefour have one of the largest presences in the world in China, but they’re only fourth and fifth in size compared to a Chinese supermarket chain. In urban Africa the same thing is happening. So essentially, food systems there are beginning to look like our food systems. Less and less farmers markets, more and more processed packaged food and produce.

NC: Given that it’s still pretty a nascent practice in these cities to adopt a large-scale, corporatized food system, is there a way to counteract this early?

Popkin: It’s very complex, it’s moving very fast and the people want it. If you’ve eaten food that wasn’t sanitary, milk that was exposed, meat that was left out on open counters, and all of a sudden you can have everything cheaper and sanitary and available quickly, you might move that way. And that’s what happened. There are lots of countries trying to change, we have lots of things to try to do to change it, but thus far nothing’s been done to turn it backwards, i.e. to move people away from packaged foods [and] back to healthy diets. It’s a very powerful set of forces that we need to understand and try to deal with.

I was just in Thailand and labeling the foods that are healthy and unhealthy. And the crown price just comes out and says, “Eat these foods that have my label on them.” That can make an impact in some countries. But the reality is that we tell them not to go to supermarkets. What you would like is to go back to Michael Pollan, to real food and farmers markets. And so would many of my colleagues who would like to go back to the traditional diets that are less processed, less chemical, less 50- to 100-ingredient items, and more basic foods. That’s not going to be easy.

NC: In lieu of a kind of Michael Pollan utopia, is there any hope for overhauling large-scale farming operations so that they become healthier and more sustainable?

Popkin: That’s a very tricky one. Again that’s a matter of a country’s economic policies and other things. One of the biggest pork farms in the world is in Thailand. It destroyed the environment in one area and they moved it to the other area. Until a country is fairly high-income, like Japan or Korea, I have not seen most of the third-world countries really fight back in a serious way against the major agricultural push that you’re talking about. It’s going the opposite way in Africa: Companies form Europe and the Middle East and elsewhere are going in an buying tracts of 10,000 hectares and using them for mass production. These are very poignant, serious questions. But right now, the bigger issue is trying to get people to eat healthier. Only when we get the climate control people, and the food people, and the water people, and the fertilizer people working together are we going to change that. We are in the midst of a confluence of factors. I’ll talk more about the food side of this [at the Feeding Cities conference].

NC: Do you think that, right now, the environmentalist crowd and people advocating for more equitable access to healthy food are working in opposition to one another?

Popkin: They’re not necessarily working in opposition, but they are to a slight extent because some of the local farmers market stuff is not necessarily environmentally sound. It’s nutritionally wonderful, it tastes great. I’m in one of these counties where we grow everything. I don’t have to go anywhere but my farmers market to get everything I need, except spices and oils and stuff. But that’s not what’s happening across the globe. Across the globe, what’s really happening is accelerating water use, accelerating environmental degradation. As animal food intake goes up by a gram per person in China, it increases the food prices across the globe. And the same goes in India if their intake goes up. And they consume only one-eighth of the animal food intake we do. So this is a big issue.

NC: Looking further afield, do you see Western nations making any sort of major change, or are they continuing on the same trajectory as well?

Popkin: Right now, the globe doesn’t have the guts. Only a few countries are trying to do serious things to change. Under Tony Blair, [the United Kingdom] was really trying to change their system in a very serious way. That stopped completely and turned around when [current Prime Minister David] Cameron came in. There are voices in the crowd in the third world saying we need to get rid of processed food, we need to go back to basic, traditional diets. They’re small voices, but they’re not making an impact. And the question is first, how do we start to get healthier food into people’s mouths working with the existing system, and how do you shift the systems back. It’s going to take generations.

Next City is a media partner for Feeding Cities 2013.

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