MSU Thomas Reardon featured in The Guardian

MSU Thomas Reardon featured in the Guardian on concerns regarding ultra processed food consumption in low-income countries.

Zigatola, Dhaka – September 20, 2023 – University distinguished professor at Michigan State University, and member of the Food Security Group within the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics, Thomas Reardon has for over 30 years conducted defining research on the changing food landscape in low-income countries. The father of the “supermarket revolution” literature, which documented the rise of modern food retail across the developing world in the early 2000s, Reardon most recently has been turning his attention, working with multiple colleagues, on changing dietary behaviors in Latin America and Africa, and in particular to the rising importance of ultra-processed foods in those diets and their association with rapidly rising problems of overweight and obesity.   

In a recent Guardian article, “Snack attack: how the west exported unhealthy eating to Africa and Asia,” Reardon points out that the traditional distinction between a snack and a full meal is rapidly eroding due to rising incomes, increased urbanization and time pressure, and food systems evolution to keep pace with these changes.  One results is that small, portable, highly-processed foods are becoming integral parts of people's lives. 

As Reardon states, "It is not a snack to them, it’s a cheap and fast meal. [Snacks] have displaced [a traditional meal] sitting down, because of convenience." This is among the trends that have set off warning bells among experts, who fear the toll it may take on public health. 

Reardon and colleagues’ research into the rising consumption of processed food in Africa has revealed some nutritional benefits, such as increased milk consumption through packaged milks, and easier fortification of processed foods, providing a key tool for combating micronutrient malnutrition. However, a concerning finding is that up to a third of the processed foods consumed fall into the category of Ultra-Processed Foods (UPFs), most of which pose significant challenges to public health. 

The result is a rising “double burden of malnutrition” where under-nutrition coincides with excessive consumption and rising overweight obesity within the same population.  According to Reardon's research, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are the regions where the double burden of malnutrition is most pronounced. Stepping beyond scientific peer review publication to make these trends known in popular global outlets such as The Guardian is important as development specialists work to mobilize public support for addressing rapidly emerging problems such as those associated with ultra-processed food consumption.

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