Changing tastes and expanding waists

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The United States is the fattest country in the world. It is also one of the wealthiest.

Those two pieces of trivia are not unrelated. In fact, there’s a noted correlation between bulging pay cheques and burgeoning body mass. The World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that higher and upper middle-income earners are more than twice as likely to be overweight than lower income people.

Much of this has to do with the nature of work. Menial, physically demanding jobs rarely yield high pay, especially in the developing world. Likewise, wealthier people have the luxury of moving around less and eating bigger meals. The mass migration to big cities has had an impact on waistlines, too, as individuals rely more and more on processed food. Over two billion people across the world are either overweight or obese, according to a comprehensive study published in The Lancet. The majority of these people live in the developing world.

But there’s an even more disturbing trend here. Experts believe the adopting of a Western diet has contributed significantly to the growing obesity crisis.

“While 237 years ago, we wanted to export democracy, now we may be exporting obesity,” said health expert David Beier late last year during a Cleveland forum on obesity.

There is evidence of the detrimental affect of abandoning traditional diets in the Pacific Islands, Hispanic and Indian subcontinent communities.

The biggest impact, both health-wise and economically, is the burden of obesity on an individual and the community around him or her.

But Vice-President of Corporate Affairs for Cargill, Scott Portnoy, denies any link between the Western diet and obesity.

“That’s an opinion,” Mr Portnoy says.

“I don’t think so.”

Cargill is the largest privately owned food manufacturer in the world. It and three other food giants control up to 90 per cent of the world’s grain export.

Mr Portnoy wouldn’t be drawn on whether Cargill is pushing a Western diet at the expense of traditional ones, which have less processed foods that cause obesity.

“We’d be advocates of being sure that people understand their role in a safe, nutritious diet,” Mr Portnoy says.

Rather, the Vice-President says the company is using technology to help solve the issue of global hunger.

Mr Beier wants greater dialogue with food manufacturers on cutting back the sugar, salt and fat content of their products.

“You have to challenge them, but it won’t happen overnight,” he told the October 2013 conference.

“We started a dialogue and that was the beginning of change.