top of page

Sweet, Salty, Ultra-Processed Food Products on the Move

Scholar Raises Concerns About ‘Junk Foods’ Entering Markets in Developing Nations


An increasingly familiar scene in the developing world.  ©JackF/istock 
An increasingly familiar scene in the developing world. ©JackF/istock 

Consumers in the Western world are increasingly aware that eating too much “junk foods”—aka “ultra-processed” foods—isn’t healthy. Now there is concern that food giants are expanding into new markets in the developing world, and this will help bring health and even environmental problems to new populations. 

Gómez, a political scientist, is professor and associate chair at the Department of Community and Population Health and director of the Institute of Health Policy and Politics at the College of Health at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, US.

He has worked in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa for many years, looking at “contested” epidemics (epidemics for which the government debates whether to intervene) such as obesity and diabetes.


Telling the Story

Dr. Eduardo Gómez.  ©Courtesy of Eduardo Gómez
Dr. Eduardo Gómez. ©Courtesy of Eduardo Gómez

Gómez became interested in food companies’ attempts to expand into emerging markets while studying obesity in Brazil and the US, and more recently in Mexico.

“I realized one day that despite all the policy innovations in Brazil and Mexico and trying to increase awareness about obesity and the foods that contribute to it, there was still an ongoing increase in obesity—among children and the poor especially—but in the population in general,” he explains.

“Maybe there’s some kind of industry interference […] because big industries want to make money,” he says. “And oftentimes they’re not fully aware of—or they’re aware but they’re not really concerned about—the possible health implications of their foods.”

Writing his book provided Gómez with the opportunity to “really get behind the juicy details of what’s driving these ongoing contested epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.”

Writing his book provided Gómez with the opportunity to “really get behind the juicy details of what’s driving these ongoing contested epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.”

Gómez has discussed his book on National Public Radio, and his book has been reviewed by the medical journal, The Lancet. He has also spoken about the ultra-processed food industry on podcasts, such as Junk Food Politics: the price of outsized corporate influence.

“Colleagues in the medical schools and public health schools have really appreciated that I've gone into depth on an issue that needs a lot of explanation,” he says.

What is ‘Ultra-processed’ Food?

The term refers to food products that have been significantly changed (processed) from their original states, using a variety of additives including salt, sugar, fat, preservatives, and/or artificial colors. They are usually low in fiber and high in calories but taste good.


Candy, soft drinks, most breakfast cereals, packaged food products, ice cream, chicken nuggets, and chips and other “snack” foods are just a few of the tens of thousands of ultra-processed products for sale.

In the United States, ultra-processed food products are ubiquitous: Researchers at the Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute estimate that 73% of the US food supply is ultra-processed, according to a 2022 article in Nature Food.


Gómez describes ultra-processed foods as ones “that are often packaged, frozen, made from ingredients that are made by manufacturers. So [they’re] not necessarily in their natural state, such as an apple or an orange.”

“An ultra-processed food is a food that's often manufactured in an industry with added ingredients taken from other kinds of foods—sugar added, salt added, fat often added, colors [added]—and all these foods are often packaged, to be stored in our cupboards, in our refrigerators, and our freezers,” Gómez says.

Health Problems

Ultra-processed food is linked to several serious health concerns. [See The Earth & I, August 2022]

Gómez explains: “High consumption of ultra-processed highly sugary foods [...] is associated with diseases like type 2 diabetes. Other kinds of foods high in fats and ultra-processed ingredients are often associated with gaining weight and a rise in obesity.” 

He notes that adolescent type 2 diabetes has been increasing when it has typically been a disease associated with older adults. “Type 2 diabetes is the next global pandemic, if it isn't already,” claims Gómez. [See The Earth & I, February 2022] 

Gómez writes that growing awareness of these problems in the US has led to a 25% decrease in per-capita consumption of sugary drinks between 1998 and 2014. Meanwhile, there is evidence Mexicans are now drinking more sodas and sugary drinks—and the number of obese people in Mexico has jumped from 23% in 2005 to 29% in 2016.


Soda consumption has increased considerably in Mexico.  ©Holgs/istock 
Soda consumption has increased considerably in Mexico. ©Holgs/istock 

Environmental Implications

Gómez worries about the environmental implications of expanded markets for ultra-processed food products.

“A lot of these processing plants require a lot of water to process their foods. […] Manufacturers are contributing to air pollution issues. There's a lot of usage of plastics and packaging. So there are many environmental factors,” he says.

Increasing Access and Sales

Trade liberalization agreements have opened the door for food and beverage corporations to promote all their products more easily in emerging economies, notes Gómez. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which came into force in 1994–2020 (now currently the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement), eliminated all tariffs on imported goods between Canada, the US, and Mexico. Elsewhere, in India and China, access to markets is also more open than ever before. 

Some governments, such as Chile, place restrictions on advertising targeted to children, but others do not, Gómez notes.

Influencing Policy from Within

In his book, Gómez reviews how corporate partnerships with government and other agencies, including scientific institutions and non-governmental organizations, are affecting policies.

Some companies are engaged in “corporate social responsibility” programs that promote exercise and physical fitness; during COVID-19, many companies provided testing sites, explains Gómez. They also participate in education and programs on environmental responsibility. 


In his book, Gómez reviews how corporate partnerships with government and other agencies, including scientific institutions and non-governmental organizations, are affecting policies.

In China, for example, snack food giant, Mondelez International, works with the Chinese Youth Development Foundation, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and local governments to improve school kitchens and children’s nutrition.


In South Africa, Coca-Cola has joined with the government to organize public exercise events, while Nestlé offers nutritional education training, better school meals and school exercise programs, in partnership with the state. 


Another example includes the Indian government’s partnership with PepsiCo to improve children’s nutrition.


“I think every major multinational corporation that is concerned about their global reputation, always wants to be involved and have some positive things to say about health and the environment,” Gómez observes.

“Many people have argued that it's for legitimacy and to avoid regulations and public scrutiny,” he claims. “It creates incentives for governments not to regulate these companies because they're often perceived as being a solution to the problem.”


But there is concern about ultra-processed food products flooding new markets. In Mexico, for example, non-governmental organizations have raised awareness of processed products that are harmful.


A citizen gathering on the future of food and farming in Europe.  ©European Union 2012 - European Parliament CC BY NC ND 2.0 
A citizen gathering on the future of food and farming in Europe. ©European Union 2012 - European Parliament CC BY NC ND 2.0 

Gómez applauds academic researchers who are focusing on ultra-processed foods and bringing issues into the public square. “As more politicians understand that their constituents are concerned about these issues, then more can happen. Now we have to really convince congressional members or parliamentary members that their constituents are really concerned,” he says.

 

*Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for non-profit organizations, labor unions, the education sector, and government agencies.


ความคิดเห็น


Join Our Community

Sign up for our bi-monthly environmental publication and get notified when new issues of The Earth & I  are released!

Welcome!

bottom of page