Ultra-Processed Profits: The Political Economy of Countering the Global Spread of Ultra-Processed Foods – A Synthesis Review on the Market and Political Practices of Transnational Food Corporations and Strategic Public Health Responses

Document Type : Original Article

Authors

1 Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

2 College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD, Australia

3 International Center for Equity in Health, Federal University of Pelotas, Pelotas, Brazil

4 Indonesian Adolescent Health Association, Jakarta, Indonesia

5 Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, Geelong, VIC, Australia

Abstract

Background 
Ultra-processed food (UPF) and Ultra-processed beverage (UPB) consumption is associated with higher risks of numerous non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Yet global consumption of these products is rising due to profound changes in production, processing, manufacturing, marketing, retail, and consumption practices, alongside the growth of the resources and political influence of Big Food. Whilst the sales of UPFs and UPBs in high-income countries (HICs) are stagnating, sales are rapidly expanding in more populous middle-income countries (MICs). In this paper, we adopt a political economy of food systems approach to understand how growth of Big Food in MICs drives the NCD pandemic.
 

Methods 
We conducted a mixed methods synthesis review. This involved quantitative data collection and development of descriptive statistics; a search for academic, market and grey literature on the expansion of UPF in MICs; and the development of themes, three illustrative case examples (South Africa, Colombia, and Indonesia), and synthesis of the enablers of successful campaigns in MICs into recommendations for public health campaigns.
 

Results 
We project that the combined sales volume of UPFs in MICs will reach equivalency with HICs by 2024, and the total sales volume of UPBs in MICs is already significantly higher than in HICs. Similarly, annual growth in UPF sales is higher in MICs compared to HICs. We also show how Big Food has entrenched its presence within MICs through establishing global production and hyper-local distribution networks, scaling up its marketing, challenging government policies and scientific expertise, and co-opting civil society. We argue that public health can counter the influence of Big Food by developing an expanded global network of driven and passionate people with diverse skillsets, and advocating for increased government leadership.
 

Conclusion 
The projected increase in sales of UPFs and UPBs in MICs raises major concerns about the global capacity to prevent and treat NCDs.

Keywords


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Articles in Press, Corrected Proof
Available Online from 24 May 2021
  • Receive Date: 22 December 2020
  • Revise Date: 13 April 2021
  • Accept Date: 17 April 2021