Delicious, disgusting, dangerous: how global eating habits are changing

Food & livelihoods, Food security

There’s a food revolution going on all over the world and the young are at the forefront of it; but how much are they the leaders? And how much are they the ones being led? John Magrath, Programme Researcher, introduces new research from Oxfam and the Institute of Development Studies, looking at how diets around the world are changing.

The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and Oxfam have just published a study of eating habits in ten countries around the world. The title, ‘Delicious, Disgusting, Dangerous’, sums up its findings about how we think about our food nowadays. I say ‘we’ because, as a white Briton, it is fascinating to learn from this study how a very large and increasing portion of global humanity is beginning to eat like me, that is, eating
pre-packed, processed food, and often also eating in the way that I do, not sitting down with the family for meals but snacking between work or social engagements. This is increasingly so from Bolivia, to Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, to Britain. 
A saying in Burkina Faso is that: ‘It is the tô that kicked the youngster out of the village’, tô being a sourdough of sorghum or millet.

The danger, of course, is that all those people eating like me might begin to share some possible future health problems, like a spreading paunch and ultimately perhaps, diabetes or heart problems. Although, it might take a few years yet for that to happen because it is young people who are driving this food revolution – or perhaps, being driven by it. 

Some reasons are obvious and understandable. Let’s face it: the diet in Britain when my grandparents were around was, to my taste now, pretty monotonous, and tasteless. Where were bananas? Or curries? What was spaghetti? The IDS report makes it plain that some traditional foods had little to recommend them, ‘disgusting’ might be the way a teenager would describe it. A saying in Burkina Faso is that: ‘It is
the tô that kicked the youngster out of the village’, tô being a sourdough of sorghum or millet.  

So as young people turn their faces to the towns, they are increasingly turning to fast food and eating on the streets. Men and boys tend to have labouring jobs and cash in their pockets; they want food that is fast, filling and available close to their place of work. But women too want convenience foods; they eat outside much less, but because they lack the time or the means to cook as much at home, they will replace, pad out or flavour their home cooking with processed sauces. 

It is the youngest children who are most demanding, or most susceptible, when it comes to these new trends. And here the well-honed tricks of marketing work their magic. In all countries parents voice the same concerns as in the UK; they worry that their children are eating too many snacks and too much fast food, that they are being seduced by bright, colourful packaging and clever ads on the television. They fret that the schools are invaded by street vendors at break times, selling their children sweets and savouries that are calorie-dense, with too much sugar, too much fat and too
many dubious chemicals, if they are labelled at all. 

Responses by parents are also similar the world over: you try and get children to eat more fruit and veg (when finances allow), make up a nice lunchbox for them, limit their pocket money and urge their teachers to limit and oversee the sellers. At the same time, children are hard to resist when they insist they want something (maybe when they start crying), it seems it would be cruel not to indulge them at least occasionally.

Industrial food systems (national or international) increasingly control the food we eat. 
So what is clear from the report is that these issues are now global, and they are not going to go away. What does this mean for development? It is ‘development’; or at least, it is the way the world works now. Industrial food systems (national or international) increasingly control what we eat. 

A global food system in which we are all consumers does offer many benefits. There has never been such availability of food in cities the world over, nor such variety – and variety is equally important. Food has never been simply about fulfilling biological or nutritional needs. We human beings crave novelty. We want to be sophisticated. We don’t want to eat the boring things that our parents eat. We want to taste and savour other people’s foods. 

On the other hand, we all also fear loss of control over what we and our children eat. Are we really choosing our diets? Or are we being manipulated? What’s actually in that shiny packet? It may taste good but is it doing us harm, or our children harm? The spread of media and information has made people in the remotest places increasingly aware of the perils of excess sugar and fat, and the dubious presence of additives.   

So nowadays, for many people, the struggle is not to simply obtain calories, in fact, it is becoming quite the opposite. It is to make sure the food we purchase is nutritionally balanced and safe, and make sure that governments stand up for consumers – from Guatemala to Grangemouth, and from Pakistan to Peterborough.  

Photo: Doling out portions of the traditional food nshima, or maize meal, in Zambia. Credit: Abbie-Trayler Smith/Oxfam

Author: John Magrath
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.