This collection of photos is truly eye-opening. Taken by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluision for their book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, the photos are of families from around the world with a week’s worth of food purchases. On a daily basis, you might never really take stock of what you are eating, but when an entire week of meals is gathered up, the results can be shocking.
Processed Foods are World Foods
North Carolina, USA
The thing that probably stands out most about these pictures is the packaging. The families from North Carolina, California, and Texas, of course, eat the typical American diet, full of overly processed foods, but they are not alone. European families from Britain, Germany, France, and Italy appear to eat no better.
Yet, more distant countries like Australia, Japan, and China have also not escaped the evils of a processed diet. It seems that almost everywhere cheaper, more convenient, chemically processed foods have taken over from fresh, whole ingredients. One of the big reasons we face growing obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease rates becomes clear pretty quickly.
Where is the Produce?
Almost every family has a few vegetables on their table, but in some photos you really have to look between the bottles of Pepsi, fast-food containers, and bags of cookies to find them. Very few, if any, families seem to be following a diet that would be consistent with what a nutritionist might consider healthy.
Obviously, these families aren’t representative of all families in the US, or Europe, or wherever, but I think the photos do show that many families still don’t come close to eating enough fruits and vegetables. The idea that a good diet consists of meat, grains, and a small serving of vegetables on the side is still very much alive today.
Even worse, that idea of health seems to be spreading. When you are in a circle of people who are health conscious, who read about the benefits of fruits and vegetables and of living a healthy lifestyle, it’s easy to forget that’s not really the norm. That’s not the idea that’s being spread across the world.
I find this image of Mexico particularly haunting. You can see that they still eat a lot of produce in the front, and then in the back behind everything there’s just this ominous line of twelve 2-litre Coco-Cola bottles. Is that the diet America is exporting to the rest of the world? It’s sad to see.
So Many Sugary Beverages
It’s not just Mexico, however, that is drinking too much sugar. In almost every photo you can find Pepsi or Coke hiding somewhere. Or if not pop specifically, then all kinds of fruit cocktails and similarly sugar-laden drinks. The amount of added sugar families are drinking around the world is terrifying.
Of course, it’s well-known that sugar causes all sorts of health problems related to diabetes, obesity, and cancer, but that bit of knowledge has not been as well advertised as Coco-Cola.
So Much Bread
You can find at least a few loaves of white bread in almost every family photo. It is clear that around the world, simple carbohydrates are still some of the most popular food staples. Many of the American families eat chips and pizza weekly. Many Europeans seem to eat a loaf of white bread every day.
Again, though health-conscious people are growingly aware that complex carbs are far better for your health, that knowledge has clearly not spread.
Do Poorer Countries Have Better Nutrition?
Perhaps what is most striking about these photos is that the American ones almost make me sadder than those taken in less developed parts of the world.
Looking at the families in Chad, Mali, Ecuador, and Guatemala they certainly have less to eat, but it’s also free of added sugars, preservatives, and dyes. It consists of more raw, whole ingredients.
There’s no doubt that living in a country where people go hungry every day is a terrible thing, and that living in a country like America is a privilege and a luxury. But it’s even sadder that that privilege is so often squandered. That we live in a country of abundance and yet, manage to feed our families some of the worst, unhealthiest types of foods.
Money, Food, and the World
Looking at the families around the world, the role of money becomes obvious. Eating a diet full of fresh, organic produce and complex carbs is still too costly for many families. Processed and packaged foods are still considered to be cheap and convenient by a large majority, with their health risks being ignored, downplayed, or unknown.
Which highlights the related problem of education. Big corporations like Pepsi and Coke can easily spread their message with million dollar advertising campaigns, while the message of better health and nutrition gets lost. Unfortunately, spreading that message is probably the best way to ever bring down the cost of healthy alternatives.