Cheap junk food triggering obesity in emerging countries

May 11, 2015 12:41
Obesity in China has risen as junk food has become popular and the cost of fruit and vegetables has risen. Photo:

Eating healthily is becoming an expensive luxury in emerging market countries, where vegetable prices have soared while high-fat, sugary junk foods have become cheaper, economists said Monday.

Prices of fruit and vegetables rose 91 percent from 1990 to 2012, while the costs of ultra-processed ready-to-eat meals dropped by up to 20 percent in Brazil, China, Mexico and South Korea, researchers wrote in the first study of its kind on emerging economies.

The price shifts are contributing to rising obesity in the developing world, mirroring the expanding waistlines in wealthy countries, said the 64-page study, "The rising cost of a healthy diet", from the Overseas Development Institute, a think tank based in Britain.

The prevalence of overweight adults in Brazil has doubled since 1980 as cheap potato chips, sugary drinks and energy bars became more popular, the study said.

Obesity has surged in China as the prices of green vegetables have doubled over the past 20 years, it said.

"The policy implications are clear," Steve Wiggins, an agricultural economist and lead author of the study, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Governments should start using taxes and subsidies to nudge people toward a healthier diet."

Of the four countries studied, Mexico has the most serious problems with junk food consumption.

Roughly two-thirds of its population is obese or overweight, Wiggins said.

In response to obesity and an "epidemic" of type 2 diabetes, Mexico has imposed a tax on sugary drinks, he said.

The economists who wrote the study said they are unable to explain why fruit and vegetable prices are rising.

Processed food is getting cheaper because industrial conglomerates have become more efficient in taking cheap ingredients and turning them into food that is "tasty but high in fat, energy, sugar and salt", Wiggins said.

– Contact us at [email protected]