Fast Food, Partnerships, and the Global Double Burden of Malnutrition

By Caitlin Allmaier

On August 24th, fast food giant Burger King purchased Tim Hortons, the beloved Canadian doughnut and coffee chain. While the acquisition was allegedly driven by tax advantages, the move puts Burger King in the same league as McDonalds and other major fast food companies; almost half of all Burger King stores in business today are outside of the United States, according to Forbes, and the company is now eagerly looking to expand operations in countries like Sri Lanka, India, and Brunei, as well as stations throughout the Caribbean.

Burger King Double Cheeseburger: 370 calories

Burger King Double Cheeseburger: 370 calories

Yet as fast food giants expand internationally to meet the changing demand and tastes of the growing global middle class for cheaper, more convenient food, the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and other diet-related disabilities also increases.

The changing food landscape has led to several new challenges, including a trend the Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) identifies as the double burden of malnutrition. The FAO and others have found that the overabundance of certain nutrients relative to the amounts required for normal growth and development negatively affect vulnerable parts of the population. For example, children who are undernourished often suffer from stunting and/or wasting; meanwhile, overnourished children are often overweight or obese for their age and height, allowing them to become vulnerable to diseases like early-onset diabetes and various cardiovascular diseases.

The FAO asserts that, in many cases, overnutrition stems from low-cost, easily accessible food that contributes to an unbalanced diet. In China, for example, the fast food sector is on overdrive; roughly ten new McDonald’s restaurants open per week throughout the country according to the BBC. The consumption of processed meats, refined grains, sugar, and high-starch vegetables like potatoes have been linked to substantial weight gain, especially among younger demographics; the Chinese obesity rate has skyrocketed over the past three decades, with the 1982 obesity rate standing at 7 percent and the current rate surpassing 38 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

In spite of these trends, government policies can tackle malnutrition while accommodating the expansion of the fast food sector by transforming consumer demand rather than regulating fast food itself. Influencing consumer demand incentivizes businesses to make more healthy products.  For example, the Hong Kong Department of Health launched the EatSmart@School Campaign in 2006 to help primary schools establish healthier dietary policies and train educators in nutrition and public health messaging. The Western Pacific Regional Office of the WHO awarded EatSmart@School a Special Recognition Award in 2012 to commemorate the program’s contribution to the scale-up of healthy cities.

The World Health Organization suggests that mass media campaigns are one of the most effective strategies for NCD prevention and control in many parts of the developing world. Campaigns like those put on throughout Latin America by the Sesame Workshop have also found relative success. Using kid-friendly characters along with local production companies and techniques, Sesame Street has transcended cultural borders to spread a heart-healthy, active-lifestyle message that has the great potential to incentivize healthy eating patterns early in childhood. Similarly, the Philippines-based Jollibee Group Foundation’s school feeding program offers another example of leveraging private clout for high nutritional impact. Through its foundation, Jollibee seeks to provide healthy food to a number of vulnerable students while providing parent education to encourage sustainable and healthy lifestyle changes.

Given its popularity and reach, the fast food sector has the ability to elevate health standards for their consumers through both public and private messaging platforms and partnerships without sacrificing profit margins. Burger King and others should look to leverage their business models for health and nutrition development—companies need not sacrifice their consumers’ waist lines to maintain their own bottom lines.

Photo courtesy Razor512 Flickr photostream

Caitlin Allmaier is a researcher with the Global Food Security Project at CSIS.

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