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A Broken Global Food Supply: Fault and Solutions

The Double Burden of MalnutritionAll right. Who broke the global food supply? With a press event and seven new articles in Lancet yesterday, the World Health Organization put a spotlight on the double burden of malnutrition. Yes, it’s true. More than one in three low and middle-income countries now face health threats from both undernutrition and obesity.

Babies and children in these countries suffer from too little food. And then, they face a risk of obesity from foods that provide plenty of calories, but too little nourishment.

A Broken Global Food System

Is this a failure of the public or the private sector? WHO’s Director of Nutrition for Health and Development, Francesco Branca, tells us it’s a systems failure:

All forms of malnutrition have a common denominator – food systems that fail to provide all people with healthy, safe, affordable, and sustainable diets. Changing this will require action across food systems – from production and processing, through trade and distribution, pricing, marketing, and labelling, to consumption and waste. All relevant policies and investments must be radically re-examined.

In other words, everyone is responsible for the problem and for working toward solutions. Countries around the world are loading up on cheap and tasty calories. The global food industry steps up to meet the demand. But those calories don’t come with the nutrients people need for good health. Just a lot of sugar, salt, and fat to keep people coming back for more. So bodies respond by storing those calories as unhealthy fat tissue. Obesity and chronic diseases grow ever more common.

A Global Food Supply That Depends on Ultra-Processed Foods

Big food is an easy target for blame. And surely, they bear responsibility for building a global food supply that can undermine health. Research on the contribution of ultra-processed foods to poor health is proliferating. Just yesterday, JAMA Internal Medicine published yet another study of ultra-processed food and the risk of chronic disease.

Of course, much of the evidence for a problem with ultra-processed foods documents a correlation. We don’t definitively know what the causal pathways are. But we do have experimental evidence that ultra-processed foods are problematic. It’s easy to condemn purveyors of these foods. But it’s a lot harder to develop alternatives that will feed the world and promote good health.

Objectivity and Curiosity About Solutions

Our friend Emily Dhurandhar tells us that this problem will be anything but easy to solve:

The biggest challenge in addressing the double burden of malnutrition is remembering that energy availability through food is a basic necessity that any human being will ration carefully in the face of scarcity, in ways that may not be entirely rational or predictable. Policies that constrain access may be prone to unintentional effects, so as we implement them it’s important to monitor outcomes carefully.

In other words, we need to be objective about this problem and our pet policies for addressing it. We must be curious about the effects these policies actually have and about alternatives we should consider. Objective problem-solving wins over finger-pointing and defensiveness every time.

For-profit and nonprofit, public and private sectors – all must step up to collaborate in meeting this challenge.

Click here for the featured series in Lancet and here for more on the link between food insecurity and obesity.

Good Morning World! Photograph by Lori Greig, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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December 17, 2019

One Response to “A Broken Global Food Supply: Fault and Solutions”

  1. December 17, 2019 at 10:27 am, David Brown said:

    Who broke the global food supply? That would be the American Heart Association. For many decades that organization has been advocating for the edible oils industry by demonizing saturated fats and extolling seed oils. Yes, high intakes of linoleic acid can reduce risk for heart attack. However, for those of us who consumed a lot of linoleic acid in our youth, the reduced risk carries a penalty – varicose veins.

    Varicose veins are not the only problem. Here is the latest on polyunsaturated fatty acid research.

    The American Heart Association’s recommendation to swap saturated fats for polyunsaturated fats has always been controversial. In the 1960s a researcher in India, S. L Malhotra, wrote this: “Our own investigations showed that the occurrence rates of acute myocardial infarction were seven times higher in the South Indians as compared with the North Indians, even though the North Indians consumed nine times more fat, most of which was animal fat derived from milk and ghee, with a preponderance of saturated fatty acids.”

    In 2012 Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay begins an article about the fat intake controversy with this question: “Is a particular dietary recommendation harming people in the U.S.?” The article continues: “For almost 20 years, scientists have been arguing over whether Americans and others on a typical Western diet are eating too much of omega-6s, a class of essential fatty acids. Some experts, notably ones affiliated with the American Heart Association, credit our current intake of omega-6s with lowering the incidence of cardiovascular disease. Others, which include biochemists, say the relatively high intake of omega-6 is a reason for a slew of chronic illnesses in the Western world, including asthma, various cancers, neurological disorders and cardiovascular disease itself.”

    One wonders how much longer the AHA will be able to dominate the narrative and maintain the illusion that its interpretation of the science is the correct one.