Updated: Jan 23, 2020
A study published in Nature Food has analysed data for 171 countries on the availability of 18 food groups from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation to identify and track multidimensional food supply patterns from 1961 to 2013. Results show a trend towards a universal diet.
The study identifies four predominant food-group scores combinations that explain almost 90% of the cross-country variance in food supply: animal source and sugar, vegetable, starchy root and fruit, and seafood and oilcrops. Food systems in different countries and years are characterised according the availability of 18 food groups ( cereals, pulses, starchy roots, oilcrops, spices, fruits, aquatic products, treenuts, vegetables, vegetable oils, fish/seafood, stimulants, offals, sugar/sweeteners, eggs, animal fats, milk and meat) that are summarised into numerical scores. These scores relate the proportion of total energy available for human consumption from each food group.
The convergence occurs in a more pronounced way in Western countries and southeast Asia. For example, the vegetable score increased in both east Asia and Western countries. However, east Asia experienced a large rise in the animal source and sugar score while many Western countries, especially English-speaking countries, experienced declines.
China, for instance, increased the vegetable score but meat consumption was multiplied by eight in the last 50 years.
The greatest changes in food supply from 1961–1965 to 2009–2013 occurred in east and southeast Asia, especially in South Korea, China and Taiwan, and in parts of the former Soviet Union and the Middle East while the countries with the smallest changes in their food supply were in sub-Saharan Africa. These countries keep eating as bad as before and have not seen a real improvement, for example, Mali, Chad or Senegal. With the notable exception of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, there were substantial changes in national food supply patterns over the past 50 years.
The study shows that there are two large parallel trends. In populated countries in East Asia, with a strong vegetable diet, there has been an explosive growth in meat consumption. China is the most prominent example. The proportion of four food groups in 1961 was as follows: 57% of the diet were cereals, 21% starchy roots, such as potatoes, 2% were meats and 1% sugars. In 2013, the change has been dramatic: cereals, particularly rice, represent 47% of the diet, tubers have dropped to 5%, meat has risen to 16% and sugars have doubled.
On the other hand, the US and other western countries are still very carnivorous, but they have reduced the consume of meat products by almost 20%. In fact, the greatest relative reduction in the proportion of meats and, in parallel, the greatest contribution of vegetables has occurred in six countries of Anglo-Saxon descent, but it is a worldwide trend.