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Feeding the world
Eating costs the rich less
20
January
2015
Annika Gil
In Mali, a home-cooked meal costs just USD 0.17, compared to USD 5.5 in the USA. However, the African cook spends nearly half of his or her income on food, whereas the American spends just 6.6%. On the other hand, the African's meal will be higher in fibre and complex carbohydrates and lower in fats than the American's meal.

The rich eat a lot and are therefore fat, while the poor eat little and are therefore thin... But is this really true? Western-style economic development has boomed over the last hundred years. It now extends, to varying extents, across the whole planet, muddying the waters in its wake. The rich of yesteryear, with their big round bellies, now, in the West, feel they need to be slim, but not in Africa and the East. The poor of today may be undernourished and therefore thin, but they may also be obese due to malnourishment. Rich countries are bursting at the seams with the overweight, but so are some poor countries. In short, centuries of regional and national food traditions are disappearing in the melting pot of globalisation.

Who eats what and how much does it cost them?

To get a better understanding of the factors that underlie daily eating habits in all four corners of the planet, below is a summary of the results of a survey that has been conducted by Nestlé in the kitchens of 55 countries(1) since 2006. 

The cost of a meal

A German meal is on average 30 times more expensive than a Malian meal (USD 5.47 compared to USD 0.17), feeds half the number of people (2.7 compared to 5.5) and takes just half the time to prepare (48 minutes compared to 82 minutes). Frontier countries spend almost as much as emerging countries (secondary and advanced) on a meal (USD 0.81 compared to USD 0.81 and USD 1.18 respectively) but the meal will feed more people (4.5 compared to 3.9). It takes the shortest time to prepare (43 minutes compared to 54 minutes).

Low incomes, high expenditure on food

The cost of food has to be assessed in relation to average incomes, as carried out by the United States Department of Agriculture(2). Every year it calculates how much is spent on food in countries around the world. So while developed countries spend a lot more on their food than the rest of the world, the cost only has a small impact on their budgets. North Americans spend 6.6% of their overall income on food, compared to 11% to 14% for Europeans. Rent, insurances, taxes, leisure, communications and transport cost them as much, if not a great deal more. In contrast, inhabitants with the lowest incomes in emerging countries and lesser developed countries spend in effect vastly more on feeding themselves: Indians spend 25% of their income on food, Russians 32% and Cameroonians 46%. 

Women moving out of the kitchen and into the workplace

Economic development often goes hand in hand with the emancipation of women, who then become active in the job market. The result? After the success of convenience foods as a way of dealing with the lack of time for preparing food, health considerations have brought fresh foods back onto the tables in developed countries. This trend has forced men to be more involved in cooking (although progress in this area has been slower).

How money affects how people see food 

Unsurprisingly, for consumers in the poorest countries, their goal is to satisfy their hunger with products of an acceptable quality. As the economic level improves, it becomes more and more important to ensure a regular supply of good quality food that also tastes nice. The richer people get, the greater emphasis they place on variety and on eating for pleasure and as a way of socialising. Food becomes a way of improving their physical and/or psychological well-being.

Malnutrition on the one hand, chronic diseases on the other

One consequence of economic development is that a traditional diet high in fresh produce, complex carbohydrates (found in cereals and potatoes) and fibre gives way to a diet higher in sugar and fat, made up of processed foods. While mortality due to malnutrition and infections is going down, with the influence of lifestyle and longer life expectancy, it is being replaced by chronic diseases such as diabetes. That is why the nutritional transition in emerging countries needs to be supported by information on the connection between health and diet.

Daily intake of 3800 calories in Austria

In 2012, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations summed up the transition thus: globally, average daily calorie intake has gone up from 2220 in 1960 to 2800, ranging from the extreme rates of 3800 calories consumed in Austria and 3700 in the United States, to 1600 in Burundi and Eritrea. Hardly any better off are the inhabitants of Haiti, Timor, North Korea, Bolivia and Yemen, who can count on 2000 calories a day. Together, these countries are home to the vast majority of the some 800 million people who are suffering hunger in 2014.

Food and well-being

Unsurprisingly, consumers in poor countries eat first and foremost to fuel their bodies. In rich countries, where well-being is both physical and spiritual, eating is above all a way of boosting a person’s morale: by sharing and appreciating the taste of a meal, people can gain pleasure and also, through the choice of foods, look after their physical health and shape. Cookery programmes on television are an indicator of this hedonistic tendency.

Top chefs in homes and on social networks

The abundance of cooking shows on television (Top Chef, Chef’s Academy, Masterchef, etc.), which are viewed as entertainment, is revealing of how cooking is seen in terms of aesthetics, taste, creativity and choice of ingredients. These programmes encourage viewers to rediscover the pleasure of cooking and to take an interest in their food. This trend has coincided in developed countries with a drop in eating out in favour of meals prepared at home. Social networks and blogs are chock full of cooking experiences and recipes to be shared. Food has never been so talked about in countries that have not experienced hunger for many years.

1) The 55 countries included in the survey of Nestlé Epicure are classified according to their economic development*:  Lesser Developed Countries: Angola, Burkina Faso, Congo, Ethiopia, Mali,  Senegal, Sudan, Zambia. Frontier Countries: Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras,  Myanmar, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Romania, Sri Lanka, Vietnam. Secondary Emerging Countries: Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Fidji, India, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine. Advanced Emerging Countries: Brazil, Hungary,  Malaysia, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Turkey, Venezuela. Developed Countries: Australia, Austria, Finland, Germany, Greece, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland, United States.
*Classification based on a combination of criteria used by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
(2)Tabellen und statistisches Material des US-Landwirtschaftsministeriums: www.ers.usda.gov
Annika Gil

Journalist

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