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Uneven dietary development: linking the policies and processes of globalization with the nutrition transition, obesity and diet-related chronic diseases

Corinna Hawkes

Author Affiliations

Food Consumption and Nutrition Division, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington DC, USA

Globalization and Health 2006, 2:4  doi:10.1186/1744-8603-2-4

Published: 28 March 2006

Abstract

In a "nutrition transition", the consumption of foods high in fats and sweeteners is increasing throughout the developing world. The transition, implicated in the rapid rise of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases worldwide, is rooted in the processes of globalization. Globalization affects the nature of agri-food systems, thereby altering the quantity, type, cost and desirability of foods available for consumption. Understanding the links between globalization and the nutrition transition is therefore necessary to help policy makers develop policies, including food policies, for addressing the global burden of chronic disease. While the subject has been much discussed, tracing the specific pathways between globalization and dietary change remains a challenge.

To help address this challenge, this paper explores how one of the central mechanisms of globalization, the integration of the global marketplace, is affecting the specific diet patterns. Focusing on middle-income countries, it highlights the importance of three major processes of market integration: (I) production and trade of agricultural goods; (II) foreign direct investment in food processing and retailing; and (III) global food advertising and promotion.

The paper reveals how specific policies implemented to advance the globalization agenda account in part for some recent trends in the global diet. Agricultural production and trade policies have enabled more vegetable oil consumption; policies on foreign direct investment have facilitated higher consumption of highly-processed foods, as has global food marketing. These dietary outcomes also reflect the socioeconomic and cultural context in which these policies are operating.

An important finding is that the dynamic, competitive forces unleashed as a result of global market integration facilitates not only convergence in consumption habits (as is commonly assumed in the "Coca-Colonization" hypothesis), but adaptation to products targeted at different niche markets. This convergence-divergence duality raises the policy concern that globalization will exacerbate uneven dietary development between rich and poor. As high-income groups in developing countries accrue the benefits of a more dynamic marketplace, lower-income groups may well experience convergence towards poor quality obseogenic diets, as observed in western countries.

Global economic polices concerning agriculture, trade, investment and marketing affect what the world eats. They are therefore also global food and health policies. Health policy makers should pay greater attention to these policies in order to address some of the structural causes of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases worldwide, especially among the groups of low socioeconomic status.