Globalization and Health

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We often hear discussions around the negative impacts globalization has had on health. In some respects this is true. Globalization opened the door for franchises to manufacture approaches to food services and grow into new markets. There has been a dramatic shift over the last 20 years from families eating home cooked meals to eating processed, fast foods and consumer goods from convenience stores. Globalization and brand recognition made this possible. For instance you can find a 7-11 or Kentucky Fried Chicken on the street corners from Taipei to Sao Paulo to Manila to Paris. But brand isn’t the only dynamic that make these franchises work. At the end of the day companies succeed because they give consumers what they want or perceive they need. We often hear the term 'western diet' and blame American fast food chains and other franchises for the trends around the World towards unhealthy living and the associated diseases, much like the crisis faced today in the US. There are, however, lots of regional fast food restaurant chains in most major markets that work alongside the global brands and would be taking the business if the global companies were not there. The food is regional but often no more healthy and just as processed as that provided by the global companies.

What is a western diet? In most metropolitan US cities you can find as many different types of cuisines as you can different types of people. The concept of blaming the western diet for the trends going on around the world in health is misleading. This is it shifts the focus away from what we consider to be the real issue. If we take a moment to focus on the situation in the US and use the fast food epidemic as an example, most people know that eating like this as a standard is bad for them and their families, but they do it anyway. Why?

Having worked in many cultures and countries our experience has demonstrated the issue is less about expansion of a particular diet and more about expansion of changes in lifestyle. People all over the World have shifted towards convenience.  This is based on many reasons, such as, more family activities offered outside of the home and/or both parents choosing to work. This means less time to cook at home and need for food on the go for the whole family. This is why these franchises have such global success.

Our previous advice to parents was to strive balancing busy schedules using a 70%/30% strategy where 70% of the time the family eats a home cooked meal. Evidence concludes that families that eat at home together generally eat healthier. When you cook you know what is going into the food, how it will be prepared, the portions are properly managed and it sets a standard for good eating habits. If we use an example of a 7 day week with 3 meals a day that would mean approximately 15 meals cooked at home and 6 out. This means you could have approximately 1 meal per day outside of the home and still be close to the 70% rule. This rule of thumb has worked well in the past but today we are finding there are too many loopholes that compromise health.

For instance, boiling noodles from a box and covering them in pasta sauce from a jar while shaking on parmesan cheese from a cylinder is not really cooking at home. In this scenario all of the items are still processed. In our definition we consider any food items that come from a manufacturing plant to be processed. Of course different foods are processed differently and some are healthier than others. But because of the gaps in marketing messages it is often too hard to know what is healthy and what is not. A box may say ‘100% juice’ and ‘provides a full day supply of Vitamin C’. It shows an orange dripping juice with oranges trees in a field and a smiling sun on the container. When you read the label, however, you find it is mostly processed sugar, concentrate, coloring and ascorbic acid. It is the same as if a car dealer advertised a ‘100% car’ that is ‘ready to win any race’ wrapped in a package with a high performance Lamborghini on the front, but when you open the package you find a car made from some metal scrapes, a few nuts and bolts, some spray paint and a NASCAR sticker.

To focus on the positive, globalization opens up a lot of opportunities to improve health. We can learn different things from different cultures. Japanese cuisine has long provided healthier recipes that now are aligned with science. Examples are the antioxidant benefits of green tea and the cancer fighting capabilities of certain types of mushrooms. Learning to cook different international dishes can be interesting and beneficial. Many of the recipes made fresh in Asia and Latin America are full of nutritional value and not difficult to make if you have the right kitchen accessories and know-how. We have seen a move for parents towards joining cooking classes and venturing out of their comfort zones in the kitchen to try new things.

Our best lesson in globalization is to learn what other cultures and cuisines can teach us and use it to our advantage.