Urbanization and Nutrition Transition

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Whatever the era in the evolution of cities, from antiquity to the present, it is likely that the cuisine and dietary fare of urban populations has always differed from that in tribal, nomadic, or agrarian settings of the same countries. On the one hand, if the town were a coastal port or fishing village, consumption of fish and seafood would be higher than in the interior countryside, while populations of trading centers would have more access to exotic, imported items such as Oriental spices and teas or Caribbean rums and molasses. On the other hand, food is produced in the countryside. The agrarian producers have first access to the crops and foodstuffs produced, whereas the cities can only gain that which is transported to the urbs and offered for sale. Generally, then, the basic staples in the cities are those that are traditional to the farmers that serve them.

Despite a history of poorly mechanized industry in urban factories that required heavy physical labor, an even greater daily energy output was required for rural agricultural pursuits. Hence, the amount of dietary energy needed for child growth or to maintain energy balance is generally lower for urban populations. Until recently, the variety of foods, especially produce,- was more limited in urban markets than on farms and plantations. The meat in urban centers was more likely to be dried and salted than fresh, and one or two staples, grains or tubers, would provide the bulk of dietary energy.

Electricity, food technology, and concentration of wealth in urban areas have changed this panorama in recent years as a process of 'nutrition transition,' a term introduced by Barry Popkin, has come to dominate particularly the urban populations of today's developing nations. More, rather than less, variety of food is the reality of modern cities. Sweetened and flavored processed foods have higher appeal than coarse staple roots and cereals. The 20th century saw a meteoric rise in the demand for and production of cooking oils and fat-based spreads, while refrigeration meant that fluid milk did not have to come from the udder of a dairy animal on one's doorstep to be safe and available. Processed foods - bottled, canned, and frozen -entered the market with the rise of the food sciences and food technology, and sweets and desserts became a larger component of daily fare. Inexpensive vegetable oils from corn, soy, safflower, cottonseed, etc., entered international commerce for cooking, or were hydrogenated and solidified into margarines and shortening. These dietary changes are not restricted to the affluent elite of developed countries, but are part of the change affecting the urban middle and lower classes in developing countries to an ever-increasing extent. However, at the same time, those living in abject poverty in both urban unemployment and rural landlessness could be unable to participate in any of this varied and energy-dense fare. This is the setting for 'nutrition transition' defined by Popkin as 'the rapid shift in the structure of diet in low-income countries and the coexisting problems of under- and overnutrition.' With respect to the overnutrition aspect, developing country residents are participating in the dietary patterns associated with increased risk of chronic diseases.

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