How poor countries got hooked on junk food

Food for thought: Obesity has contributed to four million premature deaths globally since 1980.

Is cheap food doing more harm than good in the developing world? A shocking in-depth report by The New York Times reveals that there are now more obese people in the world than underweight.

“Thirty years ago black people in South Africa were eating produce from fields that was much healthier, and they were walking big distances,” said Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa’s minister of health, in 2014. Later that year, the country was dubbed “the fattest nation in sub-Saharan Africa” after it was revealed that 26.8% of its 55m people were obese.

This is a global issue: a 2014 report by the Overseas Development Institute revealed that the number of overweight or obese adults in the developing world more than tripled from 250m in 1980 to 904m in 2008.

As growth slows down in established economies, increasing numbers of big businesses selling cheap, high-calorie and unhealthy food are seeking opportunities in the developing world. In Brazil, the influx of imported products has largely eradicated hunger as people no longer have to rely on a successful harvest. What’s more, access to convenient foods which are quick to prepare allows people like Celene da Silva to work full-time and afford to feed her family.

“For the first time in my life, I feel a sense of hope and independence,” says da Silva, who dropped out of school at 14 and now works as a street vendor for Nestlé, earning $185 a month. But processed food, which is high in salt, sugar and fat, comes at a price: she has recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure.

The world is waking up to the issue. The UN's annual report on food security and nutrition, released last week, is one of the first to give serious consideration to obesity. “This is a growing problem worldwide,” says Cindy Holleman, senior economist with the Food and Agriculture Organisation.

But the UN’s report also revealed that world hunger increased in 2016, for the first time in ten years. Around 11% of the world’s population is hungry. Or, 815m people. A destructive combination of war and climate change has led to this rise, meaning that 38m more people suffered from extreme hunger in 2016 than in the previous year.

The lesser of two evils

“Big food companies have already done so much good — they could eventually solve world food shortages,” some argue. Just look at Brazil: hunger has been essentially wiped out and many people have been able to achieve a higher quality of life because of quick food. Like it or not, cheap food is the future.

“Unhealthy food has simply replaced the problem of hunger with the problem of obesity,” reply others. Big corporations don’t care about public health. They are only interested in making money. We need to find ways to resolve the issues which threaten people’s food supplies without resorting to this junk food.

You Decide

  1. Has cheap food done more harm than good?
  2. Which is the bigger issue facing our world: hunger or obesity?


  1. Design a poster to put up around your school which promotes a healthy lifestyle.
  2. Do some research into a specific example of war or climate change causing hunger. Share your findings with the class.

Some People Say...

“If we can conquer space, we can conquer childhood hunger.”

Buzz Aldrin, one of the first two men who landed on the moon in 1969.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Several governments have tried out initiatives to promote healthy eating, with varying success. South Koreans ate 300% more fruit in 2009 than in 1980, thanks to government campaigns. In contrast, it is much more difficult for the Brazilian government to promote healthy eating since big businesses hold a lot of power, donating billions of dollars to political parties. Even when the Brazilian health agency Anvisa launched a healthy eating campaign in 2012, it was sponsored by Coca-Cola.
What do we not know?
Research suggests that malnutrition in childhood causes lifelong problems. Global health experts anticipate future health issues resulting from childhood obesity, but we don't yet know what the human and financial costs of this epidemic will be.

Word Watch

A person is defined as obese when they have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of over 30. The UK currently has the highest obesity rate in Europe, with one in four adults now classified as obese.
War often results in famines as crops are damaged through fighting. Additionally, some wars involve the deliberate destruction of crops belonging to the enemy in what is known as a “scorched earth” policy. Countries including South Sudan and Yemen are currently experiencing famine due to war.
Climate change
Harvests in South Sudan and Yemen, amongst other countries, have suffered due to flooding and droughts. The El Niño phenomenon has also been cited as causing unstable climates in developing countries.

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