The rise of fast food joints in Kenya points to a worrying trend in poor eating habits
BY PROF RICHARD MILLER
As globalisation continues its relentless march across East Africa, the disposable incomes go up, along with a much bigger middle class. With that, consumerism starts to change with the need for convenience and a desire for diversity in tastes. To satisfy the needs for these new eating habits of Kenyans, supermarkets and fast food restaurants will continue to look more and more like those in Europe and America. The contradiction that more developed economies bring to food is that people generally want to spend less money and time on eating. While business has given consumers low-cost wide-ranging choices, it has come at the expense of healthy eating.
The past three decades of trends point to a much heavier world and with it a new term that combines global and obesity into “globesity”. The major reason for this has been bountiful amounts foodstuff, and with it the processed kind that is designed to be a combination of convenient, addictive, and cheap. This is a celebration, because just five decades ago when the world’s population was just half of what it is today, there were predictions from academic think tanks, such as The Club of Rome, that most of the world would starve to death within a few years.
From a historical perspective food production and consumption has only very recently changed, and it has done so dramatically. From the perspective today (with global surplus food), this is a big change from the late 1960s and early 1970s when it was expected that a huge percentage of the world’s citizenry would die off. Incidentally, this was a mirror image of what had been predicted 150 years earlier by the first economist, Thomas Malthus who explained that populations expanded until they collapsed.
But both predictions were foiled by two revolutions a century and a half apart. The earlier was the ‘Industrial Revolution’, with the harnessing of hydrocarbons – coal and later oil. This allowed for a massive increase in the number of areas that could be farmed, methods of handling commodities (including refrigeration) and transportation. The second was in the 1960s what’s called the ‘Green Revolution’ led by the American scientist, Norman Borlaug who created new strands of food including the main staples: rice, wheat and corn.
The combination of these revolutions meant that there were complete changes with food production that ended up utilising cheap feed supplemented with growth hormones and antibiotics. An example is that chicken became much cheaper, as did virtually all other meats, but at the expense of taste and nutrition. It is now possible to get a cheap poultry, meat and seafood that took only a short time to grow but tastes bland (like water). The solution is flavourings to recreate tastes, to satisfy consumers. Industry developed a large array of chemicals to create tastes, so it is now possible to synthetically develop flavours to make almost any taste. Therefore, these quickly built and watered-down foods are now much more palatable.
Throughout all of these was the major change in the chromosome make-up of what is consumed. Globally, wheat is the main staple, and it has changed dramatically, having gone from 14 chromosomes to 44 chromosomes. This is rather dramatic when you think of humans and chimpanzees as being only one chromosome apart. All that adds up to a lot of what is consumed is genetically modified. So, while the taste can be great, and chloric calories have never been cheaper, processed foods are generally not healthy at all. This is led to other issues- such as a growing number of people who are now allergic to peanuts, and other health issues, that were not prevalent just a few decades ago.
There is no doubt that processed pre-packaged food has given the world abundance that has allowed the earth’s population to approach 8 billion people, but there are costs. The most heavily processed food can be found in fast food, and for those hoping to maintain a healthy lifestyle eating too much of it is cause for alarm. This was documented in the 2004 film ‘Super-Size Me’, by Morgan Spurlock who ate only at the fast-food giant McDonalds for a month, and he ended up gaining 10kgs during that time. Something that is of interest with the recent opening of the restaurant in Nairobi.
Solution is in science
There is good news, because as science created the situation of overabundance in cheap, albeit largely unhealthy food that we have today, it will likely also solve the problem. Author Mark Schatzker explains that we are on the cusp of a new revolution in agriculture promising food so healthy and tasty that it will lead to longer and healthier living for all people. But, until this promised neo-Green Revolution arrives, it is wise to take some time to understand what it is that you and your family are consuming because while it might be economical and appetising it is likely not healthy.
Richard Miller is a professor at the Department of English at Osaka Jogakuin University in Osaka Japan and Management University of Africa. Email: email@example.com