The Triumph Of The Western Diet


More and more, a new study finds, people around the world are eating like we do:

Between 1961 and 2009, the global consumption of soybeans, sunflower, and palm oil-based products—”staples” of a classic Western diet—grew several orders of magnitude, while traditional diets based on crops such as sorghum, millets, sweet potatoes, and cassava declined, according to researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. The data, gleaned from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, backs up the idea that the world is increasingly relying on processed and other “Western” foods. Lead researcher Colin Khoury calls it “Western plus,” because foods like potatoes, rice, and wheat are still eaten worldwide. But, more than ever, humans are now using those big three: soybeans, sunflowers, and palm oil, to create processed foods for people around the world.

Dan Charles discusses the problems of over-reliance on mega-crops:

The trend toward greater dependence on fewer crops continues, Khoury says. And so do the risks. It’s dangerous to depend on just a few crops because any one of them could be hit by some disaster, such as disease. But governments and international organizations can still help to safeguard diversity in our food sources. They can act to preserve the many genetic varieties of mega-crops that still exist, and also preserve and encourage cultivation of minor crops, he says.

Update from a reader:

Soybeans, sunflower and safflower oil are “‘staples’ of the classic American diet”? What are those guys talking about?

Soybeans are from East Asia. They weren’t planted in the US until the latter part of the 19th century, and even then were used almost entirely as feed for livestock. (Supposedly George Washington Carver discovered they could be used for oil.) Not until after the Second World War did they become a part of the US diet, mostly in the form of additives. Even today, relatively few Americans eat soybeans directly, whether it’s in the form of beans or soy products like tofu. The exception, of course, is soy sauce, but soy sauce is a symbol of Asian food, not American.

Palm oil is from Africa. Hardly any is produced in this country; the world’s biggest palm-oil producer is Indonesia. In this country, it is used mainly as an additive to processed foods. As with industrial soy, nobody but people who study food labels knows they are eating it. How is an increase in its consumption to be considered a sign of Americanization?

Safflower oil is grown in the US, but it, too, is of African origin. As a food, it is mostly used in salad dressing and margarine (although this is declining). Margarine is a minor product outside the English-speaking world – try buying it in Japan! It’s sufficiently uncommon in India that the last time I was there I came across an article in the Times of India explaining to its readers what margarine is (the government periodically goes into anti-butter campaigns, and the newspaper was examining whether this strange foreign stuff could be substituted for it). Again, how is this evidence of “Americanization”?

Nutrtionally speaking, much more important are the rise in the big staple cereals – wheat, rice, and corn (maize). Consumption of the first two is driven by increasing affluence in East and South Asia, where both wheat and rice have been grown for thousands of years. Again, no evidence of Americanization. Corn actually is American – I guess you have to give them that one. But overall the graph they produce shows the opposite of what they allege.