The global obesity epidemic is getting worse.
More people are now obese than underweight. Meanwhile, scientists say that a new kind of malnutrition — in which people are both overweight and undernourished— is becoming more common, especially in developing parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
As sales of processed food slows in the world's wealthiest nations, big food conglomerates, including Nestlé, PepsiCo and General Mills, have established large footprints in remote parts of the planet. The expansion may be contributing to obesity and upending traditional diets in these countries, from Brazil to Ghana, according to a new report by The New York Times.
The Times examined corporate records, epidemiological studies and government reports, and conducted interviews with nutritionists and health experts around the world to find out how the expansion of huge packaged food companies into developing nations could affect public health.
"What we have is a war between two food systems, a traditional diet of real food once produced by the farmers around you and the producers of ultra-processed food designed to be over-consumed and which in some cases are addictive," Carlos Monteiro, a professor of nutrition and public health at the University of São Paulo, told The Times.
Nestlé, the world's largest packaged food company, has hired thousands of door-to-door vendors to sell its products to a quarter-million households in the far-flung regions of Brazil. The most popular items are nearly all sugar-sweetened items like Kit-Kats and Chandelle Pacoca — a 3.5-ounce cup of peanut-flavored pudding with 20 grams of sugar, one vendor, Celene da Silva, told the Times. (For perspective, the World Health Organization recommends 25 grams of sugar daily for the average adult.)
Since 2003, 36 million people in Brazil have risen out of poverty. The economy boomed and consumer spending followed, but as The Washington Post notes, there has also been an explosion of overweight people in the country. Today, 57% of Brazil's population is overweight, and 1 in 5 people are obese.
In the past decade, food has become cheaper and more widely available throughout the world. But the most accessible foods are often often be high in calories, salt, and sugar, and low in nutrients. In a 2012 analysis, researchers found that the world's ten largest food companies control about 15% of food sales, a percentage that is rising annually. Three-fourths of world food sales are processed foods, and the largest manufacturers hold over a third of the global market.
"To understand who is responsible for these nutritional failures, it is first necessary to ask: Who rules global food systems? By and large it's "Big Food," by which we refer to multinational food and beverage companies with huge and concentrated market power," the authors wrote.
Sean Westcott, head of food research and development at Nestlé, said rising obesity was an unintended side effect of making the company's processed foods more commonplace.
"We didn't expect what the impact would be," he said.
Though the solution is unclear, several global health nonprofits are working toward raising awareness about obesity and other health problems linked to high-sugar, high-fat foods, like type 2 diabetes. In late 2016, Brazil also set new food guidelines, which call for homemade meals, native plants, and avoiding foods that are "ultra-processed."