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What forces drive the rapidly rising rates of obesity in developing nations? How are major food and beverage corporations implicated in building economies that rely on processed foods?

These major questions are at the core of a startling recent New York Times article, “How Big Business Got Brazil Hooked on Junk Food,” by Andrew Jacobs and Matt Richtel.

In recent years, the authors explain, many of the world's largest food and beverage companies have focused their efforts on “emerging markets.” This has had a significant impact on food systems in these developing nations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. For instance, Nestlé has recruited thousands of Brazilian women from poor urban areas to serve as door-to-door sales representatives, delivering Nestlé-brand packaged foods to 700,000 consumers with low socioeconomic status. As Nestlé representatives explained to Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Richtel, this initiative gives women an additional source of income and brings affordable food options to the customers.

Even though the increased presence of Nestlé in developing areas does bring these benefits, fully evaluating the impact of it and similar corporations has revealed them to be a major driver of rising obesity rates. According to one Brazilian vendor, even though Nestlé offers 800 products that include healthy food options, the most popular products are the two dozen that are highest in sugar and fat. Public health experts have pointed to these unhealthy processed foods, which are less expensive than unpackaged foods and more readily available, as major contributors to the worldwide obesity epidemic. One study published by the Ministry of Health in Brazil revealed that as of 2006, 22.7% of the population was overweight and 11.4% was obese. In 2011, the corresponding statistics were 33.1% and 15%. 

The composition of a daycare center in São Paulo, Brazil exemplifies the effects of the proliferation of packaged foods on younger generations. The daycare was started over two decades ago with the goal of eliminating child undernutrition in the poorest regions of the city. However, many of the children in the program are now overweight, and a number of them are too short for their age. Whereas undernutrition was once the most significant health risk for these children, malnutrition due to overconsumption of foods lacking in nutrients is now of greater concern. Lack of education about nutrition is one of the biggest reasons for this frightening trend. In Fortaleza, Brazil, for example, the overwhelming opinion is that Nestlé products are healthy. Nutrition facts on food packages contribute to this misinformation, emphasizing the presence of minerals and vitamins relative to portion sizes and calorie counts. It is important to turn the attention of the consumers towards fat, carbohydrates, and sodium contents on the packages and make clear the connection between unhealthy eating and diseases like obesity and diabetes.

As food and beverage corporations expand their operations in developing countries, it is necessary to establish nutrition education initiatives and increase the number of affordable healthy options. These decisions largely rest in the hands of each nation’s elected officials and the corporations themselves.