Globalization has led to a substantial deterioration in the nutritional quality of diets around the world in the past 20 years, a leading food expert says.
Poorer countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have seen the greatest increases in the consumption of unhealthy foods, and the quality of diets has improved only slightly in Western Europe and North America, says Dariush Mozaffarian of Tufts University.
Processed foods high in fat, sugar and starch are the main culprits in the growth of unhealthy food consumption, says Mozaffarian, dean of the university's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy who co-authored a study published in The Lancet Global Health journal.
He points to dietary "globalization" in the west, where a limited number of agriculture and food companies have disproportionate control over what foods are produced and distributed, as being at least partially responsible for an increasing incidence of unhealthy eating.
In what is being called the largest study to date of international eating habits, Mozaffarian and research colleagues reviewed more than 300 surveys of diets covering nearly 90 percent of the world population.
From 1990 to today, approximately the same period covered by the study, the total of people worldwide suffering from hunger dropped by 209 million to 805 million, data from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization shows.
While that is good news, Mozaffarian says, the kind of foods involved in that effort is a matter of concern.
"Most global nutrition efforts have focused on calories -- getting starchy staples to people," he says. "We need to focus on the quality of calories for poor countries, not just the quantity."
While some people have increased their consumption of healthy foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, that dietary improvement has been overshadowed by increasing consumption of processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, saturated and trans fat, unprocessed red meats, cholesterol and sodium, the study found.
One worrying development revealed by the study is that older people generally have better eating practices than young people in the majority of the countries surveyed, the researchers say.
That's a concern, Mozaffarian says, since it raises the likelihood that obesity and some chronic diseases such as diabetes will see increases if unhealthy eating continues in younger populations.
"Young people are growing up with much worse diets than their parents or grandparents," he says.
The study was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Medical Research Council.