Asia-Pacific is at a risk of poor nutrition as modern trade policy opens the region to a flood of ultra-processed food and drinks, according to a study published in Globalization and Health, a conclusion supported by a study by University of the Philippines researchers, who found young people here are at greater risk of noncommunicable diseases from consuming fast food.
In a study by Australian researchers that looked at sales and company data from transnational food and beverage companies, it was found that in China, expenditure on food services from companies such as KFC and McDonald’s increased eighteen-fold from $1.90 per person in 1999 to $34.80 per person in 2013. The research also revealed that the Coca-Cola Company alone had sales in 2013 of more than $16 billion in the Asian region, or 18 percent of their world sales.
“It is a health disaster waiting to happen. Companies are focusing their efforts in Asia because of the large market opportunities and growth in consumption that has still to happen,” said study co-author Sharon Friel, a professor at the Australian National University. “Many countries, particularly lower-middle income ones, are having increasing issues with diet related diseases such as cardio-vascular disease, heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.”
Friel called for stronger health regulations across the region, including in Australia. “We need to start looking at policies that mitigate the health risks of these types of products,” Friel said. “We need to look at introducing a tax on sugary drinks.”
Investment by food and beverage companies is facilitated by trade and investment agreements, the study noted. Friel also called on governments “to think about the trade and investment agreements they are signing, what they will mean for domestic health policy, and how they can protect human health.”
Growing problem in PH
The findings of the Australian researchers echoed those of researchers from the University of the Philippines-Diliman, who found that most of the commonly consumed fast food products among youth could increase risks of developing noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).
NCDs are cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and stroke, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes, and are responsible for more than 36 million annual deaths worldwide, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO stressed that NCDs are highly preventable, but that unhealthy diets are the most significant contribution to their development.
In the UP study, researchers surveyed 1,030 college students aged 16 to 20 years to determine their commonly consumed fast food products. The Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) then analyzed the most preferred foods.
The FNRI found that the most consumed fast food products of young people were energy-dense but low in fiber.
“Meaty dishes exceed the recommended amount of energy, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and cholesterol for ages 16-18 years old. Side dishes and condiments also contained considerable amounts of saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium while sweetened beverages and desserts contributed to the total amount of energy from meals,” the FNRI conclusions said.
Previous research has linked excessive energy content, cholesterol, fats, and sugar with increased risks of NCDs, researcher Cecile Klaudine C. Cabigas said.
To promote healthier food choices among the youth and reduce the incidence of NCDs, researchers advised fast food establishments to provide nutrition labels on their food products and develop healthier combinations in “value meals.” Also, the young must be educated with physical activity pointers, the researchers suggested.
The UP study was funded by the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development under the Department of Health’s Health Systems Research Management Program.