Document Type : Original Article
Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, VIC, Australia
College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD, Australia
International Center for Equity in Health, Federal University of Pelotas, Pelotas, Brazil
Indonesian Adolescent Health Association, Jakarta, Indonesia
Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, Geelong, VIC, Australia
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.
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.
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.
The projected increase in sales of UPFs and UPBs in MICs raises major concerns about the global capacity to prevent and treat NCDs.