Culture, Food, Politics

A blight on the developing world…


“The global burden of non-communicable disease has skyrocketed in the past decade. For the first time in human history, chronic non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes pose a greater health burden worldwide than do infectious diseases, contributing to 35 million deaths annually.” – Harvard College, Global Health Review

Several years ago, I went on a low carb/high protein diet and succeeded in taking off 35 pounds. The hardest part for me was cutting out Coke. I normally drank at least two litres a day. Like most of those types of diets once I hit my target weight I started to ease back into a normal diet and was able to keep about 20 to 25 of those lost pounds off. Instead of adding Coke back into my diet though, I switched to Diet Coke, something I attribute, at least partially, to my ability to keep some of those pounds off. Now the topic of aspartame and diet pop is for another time but Diet pop, while not fattening, does have its downsides too and I’ve discovered some of those as I have been without Diet Coke here in Central America for a few weeks now.

So, as someone used to seeing candy bars and pop in every store window, I did not expect to be shocked by what I saw in my travels. Let me start by saying that I have tried some of these sugary, junk food products down here. I did so out of habit more than anything else. In a away it was a warm security blanket to see brands that I was used to and comfortable with. Pepsi, Coke, Doritos, etc. Of course they are all down here and very easily accessible. That’s the problem. They are cheap, and they are everywhere.

The surprise came though when I bought some of these products and tasted them. Gone was the familiarity. Different recipes than I was used to apparently. And it wasn’t simply the localization of these recipes. It was very clear to me that sugar content was much higher than I was used to.

A bottle of Pepsi here in Guatemala tastes to me what the pure Pepsi syrup must taste like in fountain pop back home. Sweet is an understatement. It was downright disgusting to my tastebuds. As an aside, the Diet drinks, known as Coke Light down here, were equally disgusting. It wasn’t that the diet varieties were too sweet but the after taste and the film it left in your mouth would make you question what was in it. Anyway, quick cure for my pop addiction.

A load 'o Pepsi.And the stuff is cheap. Super cheap. So cheap that you readers are going to feel pretty ripped off next time you hit a local Needs or get your snack fix at Sobey’s next time you get groceries. A 600ml bottle of Pepsi or Coke… under $0.50. And candy is even cheaper. And its ubiquitous. You cannot turn around and not see it. Even this tiny little Mayan village where I live has at least 3 tiendas (small stores) whose main products appear to be sugary candy and soft drinks.

The locals are addicted to this stuff. Many of the poor make the bulk of their weekly income from simply collecting the plastic pop bottles for recycling efforts in the larger towns. The lanchas, the boat taxis going from town to town on Lago de Atitlan, are often full of either empty pop bottles going to Panajachel or loaded down to near sinking with full loads of 2 and 3 litre (yes… 3 litre) bottles of Pepsi. This leads to the second plague I see infecting this country… the plastic bottle and plastic bag. I’ll have that rant another time.

For some reason, likely corruption-related, Pepsi is the dominant player in Guatemala. Coke is here but its much harder to find. Pepsi and its advertising are everywhere.

“Finding a way to regulate refined sugar, which has been conclusively shown to be a drug similar to tobacco and alcohol, is crucial for both the health of developed and developing countries. Failure to curb global sugar consumption will condemn the world to yet another decade of rampant obesity, diabetes and cancer.” – Harvard College, Global Health Review

The evidence of this plague is easy to see. The vast majority of the adults have horrible teeth, most with clearly evident metal fillings replacing large portions of their teeth (interestingly, some of it gold).

The children here are seen constantly with candy in their hands and sugary drinks too. Many learn to beg for Quetzales (the Guatemalan currency)from the gringo tourists and quickly take any charity given to a tienda to buy candy. I’ve seen it over and over again since I got here. This morning I woke and the first local children I saw were eating Skittles and drinking what appeared to be old school mini-sips (bags of sugar water with a straw poked into them). It was 6:30am.

I have no idea what the solution is but I do know that these companies, Pepsi, Coke, Hershey, etc., they bear the brunt of the responsibility for this new plague. In their unethical quest for more and more profit, they are preying on these people and something has to be done or an entire generation of impoverished people in the developing world are in for a future of diabetes, cancers and an epidemic of obesity… just like the West but without the social nets and healthcare the West has to help deal with the issue.

Its not a pretty sight.

And here’s another cheery little fact to consider…

Globally, the 20% of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures – the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%. More specifically, the richest fifth:

  • Consume 45% of all meat and fish, the poorest fifth 5%.
  • Consume 58% of total energy, the poorest fifth less than 4%.
  • Have 74% of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth 1.5%.
  • Consume 84% of all paper, the poorest fifth 1.1%.
  • Own 87% of the world’s vehicle fleet, the poorest fifth less than 1%.

Further reading (a case study from El Salvador): and a WHO report on the issue:

Refined Sugar Map