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Interview: Hunger and obesity are indicators of social and economic inequality, says historian


07/10/2021

Karine Rodrigues (Oswaldo Cruz House/Fiocruz)

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In the first decades of the twentieth century, the American multinational United Fruit Company, prominent in the production and sale of tropical fruits, found a way to deal with malnutrition among its workers in Costa Rica: it imported canned and processed foods from the United States. At the same time, the solution to high infant mortality in the banana plantation zone was the introduction of an artificial food developed by Nestlé. Years later, in Mexico, the government followed the “fortified” food trend, promoting the consumption of vitamin-enriched sugar.

No, obesity did not appear overnight in Latin America, observes historian Jonathan Ablard, a professor at Ithaca College in the United States. Contrary to what one might imagine, it is associated with hunger, which has intensified globally during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a study by the United Nations (UN) released in 2020, conservative estimates indicate that more than 3 billion people worldwide could not afford a healthy diet, which, on average, cost five times more than a diet based on foods heavy in starches, like flour — highly caloric and lacking in nutrients.

Author of Framing the Latin American nutrition transition in a historical perspective, 1850 to the present, a historiographical review published in a recent edition of the journal História, Ciências, Saúde — Manguinhos (vol. 28 no.1 Mar. 2021), Ablard analyzed secondary sources, in particular, to write his article, in which he shows that problems related to food, in fact, are not a recent phenomenon among the people of Latin American. There are surprising accounts, such as those that reveal the long history of the pathologization of indigenous and local food, claimed to be poor in nutrients.

Photo: Theodor Zerivitz/The Ithacan

In the article, you argue that the increase in obesity and other food-related health problems in Latin America are not as recent as is generally mentioned in the scientific literature and in the news. It might have begun as early as the end of the nineteenth century. What led you to investigate this possibility?

This project really started by accident. A decade ago, I was in Mexico City for a conference and read a newspaper story that reported that Mexico now had greater rates of obesity than the United States. At first, I took the news at face value but then began to talk with my Mexican colleagues who shared their personal observations about dietary changes during their lifetime. We were all historians of psychiatry, so no one had studied the topic. I then began to formulate questions, starting with wondering when this process had started? As I read more deeply, I began to see that the Body Mass Index (BMI) is a fraught concept to measure and quantify obesity, that food is linked to politics and economics in ways that I had anticipated.

What sources did you seek out in order to carry out the historiographical review? During the investigation, what was the most revealing evidence of the existence of an ongoing change in eating habits since the 19th century?

Most of my sources are secondary and discuss the history of food. I read these texts looking for clues to understand the long history of nutrition transition. I have also read many of the leading papers on nutrition transition written by social scientists and nutrition experts. My objective was to fill in the gap between the historiography of eating habits and the scientific literature. I found some very important sources — underutilized in my opinion — like the pioneering publications of Adolfo Chávez, a Mexican physician and researcher who detected high rates of obesity and diabetes in Mexico in the early 1960s.
The bulk of my sources are secondary works on the history of food. I read these papers with an eye for clues to understand the longer history of the nutrition transition. I also read many of the major works on the nutrition transition written by social scientists and nutrition experts. My goal was to bridge the gap between the historiography of food and scientific literature. I located some very significant – and, I think, underutilized – sources, such as the pioneering publications of  Adolfo Chávez, a Mexican medical researcher, who was detecting high rates of obesity and diabetes in Mexico by the early 1960s.

One of the most striking early signs of the nutrition transition is the arrival of Coca-Cola into United Fruit Company enclaves and major urban zones. In the Caribbean coastal regions of Latin America, UFCo was often given distribution and bottling rights from the Atlanta-based company. Our understanding of how Coca-Cola operated in Latin America is a story not fully explored until now because the company’s archives have been mostly closed to researchers. Dr. Julio E. Moreno, University of San Francisco, is writing a book on the history of Coca-Cola in Latin America. I am eager to see this work because he is the first scholar to gain full access to US and Latin American Coca-Cola archives.

I should also mention a fantastic new report on the marketing of Nestlé products in Brazil, “Como a Nestlé se apropriou das receitas brasileiras (ou de como viramos o país do leite condensado)” by Luisa Coelho and João Peres. It is important in exploring not just the timing of the arrival of these products, but precisely how the corporation marketed them. To my knowledge, there is no comprehensive study of the history of Nestlé, based on their archives.

How could this historiographical review help reverse negative changes that occurred during this long nutrition transition in Latin America?

This is a difficult question to answer in a historical moment where science and history are under assault by conspiracy theories and peddlers of misinformation. Optimistically, I will say that there are many social movements that make compelling cases for a return to the food of their ancestors. In Mexico, "Sin Maiz No Hay País" has framed their work along two broad lines, scientific research on food and historical consciousness about the benefits of Mexican traditional foods. Such organizations exist around the world and at minimum they are staking a claim against anti-scientific and anti-historical thinking.

The consumption of foods with high fat and sugar content is one of the aspects of this transformation in eating habits. Healthy foods, such as corn and oats, started to be criticized by the industry as insufficient, compared to foods known to be inferior from a nutritional standpoint...

In the course of the research, I was surprised to learn about the long history of pathologizing indigenous and local food as barbaric or innutritious. Jeffrey Pilcher’s work is exemplary in outlining how Mexican food scientists reoriented attitudes about indigenous foodways in the middle of the 20th century. Similarly, in the United States, nutritionists declared Italian food to be unhealthy because it was vegetable-based and did not have enough meat. The diet was associated with the supposed pathology of Italian immigrants! When Italy joined the Allies in World War One, and restrictions on meat were imposed, Italian cuisine began to gain acceptance.

Brazil is the third largest food producer in the world, but suffers from serious food insecurity, according to the IBGE [Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics]. Obesity and overweight are also a problem. What can a historiographical review of the Latin American nutrition transition tell us about this apparent contradiction?

Paradoxically, hunger and obesity are linked problems. Both are indicators of social and economic inequality, racial disparities in health, conflicts of interest between state actors and business, and a general abandonment of the state in its responsibility to care for the most vulnerable. We have seen malnutrition and obesity and overnutrition related health problems coexisting in the United States since the 1960s. Low-income areas, rural and urban, are often termed as “food deserts” where the only food choices come from gas station stores and convenience stores.

Considering that the history of nutrition transition in Latin America is older than we thought, can we say that we are currently facing an obesity epidemic?

I’m not sure that “epidemic” is the right term to use. I see the problem of obesity and other nutrition-related problems as emerging over a long period of time. An epidemic implies something that emerges fairly suddenly and by implication can be eradicated. The term “epidemic” can also be used to stigmatize people with high BMI. Finally, obesity and other related issues develop from such a wide range of factors. “Epidemic” seems to medicalize a phenomenon that is medical, but also political, social and economic in its origins.

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