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Diets are changing around the world – but how? New understanding of global food supply patterns could help improve health and sustainability

Over the last fifty years global food supply has changed dramatically, resulting in stark differences in food systems and diets around the world, according to new research.
Healthy food selection including fish, milk, pulses, avocado, spinach. Credit: Daniel Vincek

Involving the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and led by the University of Kent and Imperial College London and published in Nature Food, the authors analysed food supply data for 171 countries from the last 50 years in the first multidimensional analysis of global food supply.

Food production and trade are strongly linked with population health, and can also affect the local, regional and global environments through their impact on soil nutrients, water systems and greenhouse gas emissions.

The research team found that South Korea, China and Taiwan have experienced the largest changes in food supply over the past five decades, with animal source foods such as meat and eggs, sugar, vegetables, seafood and oilcrops all becoming a larger proportion of diet. The sub-Saharan Africa region showed the least change, with a lack of diverse food supply available.

Many countries around the world saw an increase in vegetable-based diets. In contrast, in many Western countries the supply of animal source foods and sugar has declined, particularly in high-income English-speaking countries such as the UK, US, Canada and Australia.

Dr Rosemary Green, Associate Professor in Sustainability, Nutrition and Health of the Centre on Climate Change and Planetary Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and study co-author explained the findings:

“Technology and globalisation are changing the foods available globally but until now there was little information on whether those changes were the same all around the world. Our research showed that animal source foods, sugar and vegetables have become a much more important part of food supply globally over the past five decades. By far the largest changes to food supply have occurred in east- and south-east Asia where the supply of most foods has increased – with meat and eggs, sugar, vegetables, seafood and oilcrops all becoming a much larger proportion of their diet.”

This increase in food supply in emerging economies such as South Korea and China may be partly responsible for substantial improvements in the population’s nutritional status, reducing incidences of anaemia and nutrient deficiencies. The environmental impacts of these changes need to be considered so people can have access to health food that is sustainable long-term.

However, not all countries experienced this big boost in food supply. Sub-Saharan Africa showed the least change over five decades and the lack of a diverse food supply may be associated with food insecurity and poor dietary quality in some African countries. Contrary to common perception there is also some evidence that the supply of animal source foods and sugar is declining in many high income countries, especially in North America and Northern Europe.

Dr Green said “These new multidimensional patterns of global food supply provide important new evidence on the changing global food system and allow us to estimate in much detail the environmental impacts of different food systems around the world.  This information will allow us to develop holistic approaches to improving population health and reducing the impact of our food choices on the planet.”

The authors acknowledge limitations of their study include the use of food supply data in place of human consumption data and a lack of data on processed foods.

Publication

J. Bentham, G.M. Singh, G. Danaei, R. Green, J.K. Lin, G.A. Stevens, F. Farzadfar, J.E. Bennett, M. Di Cesare, A.D Dangour and M.Ezzati. Multidimensional characterization of global food supply from 1961 to 2013Nature Food. DOI:10.1038/s43016-019-0012-2