The Impact of Transnational “Big Food” Companies on the South: A View from Brazil

  • Traditional long-established food systems and dietary patterns are being displaced in Brazil and in other countries in the South (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) by ultra-processed products made by transnational food corporations (“Big Food” and “Big Snack”).
  • This displacement increases the incidence of obesity and of major chronic diseases and affects public health and public goods by undermining culture, meals, the family, community life, local economies, and national identity.
  • The penetration of transnational companies into Brazil has been rapid, but the tradition of shared and family meals remains strong and is likely to provide protection to national and regional food systems.
  • The Brazilian government, under pressure from civil society organizations, has introduced legislation to protect and improve its traditional food system; by contrast, the governments of many industrialized countries have partly ceded their prime duty to protect public health to transnational companies.
  • The experience of countries in the South that still retain traditional food systems provides a rational basis for policies that protect public health.

Traditional Brazilian Dietary Patterns

Analyses of household food expenditure surveys conducted in Brazil over the past 40 years [11][13] show that, in common with other Latin American countries, Brazil retains many long-established food systems and dietary patterns. These dietary patterns show the influences of native (“Indian”) populations, the country's Portuguese colonizers, and African slaves and their descendants. Minimally processed food staples include rice, a variety of beans, and the root cassava (manioc). These staples form the basis of everyday main meals, and are made delicious and attractive by various methods of preparation and cooking, and by the addition of oils, seeds, leaves, herbs, and spices, some of which are rich in nutrients. (Wheat is not native to Brazil; processed wheat products such as breads, cakes, and biscuits followed relatively recent immigration of people from the Mediterranean region to the southern states of Brazil, and nationally were uncommon until well into the second half of the last century.) The amount of meat, fish, and other animal products in long-established Brazilian diets depends on availability, price, and income. In the past, these foods were usually eaten only in small amounts on a daily basis, and in large quantities only as part of feasts or other special occasions.

All Brazilian cities have restaurants, bars, and popular canteens, where a good variety of locally sourced traditional Brazilian food is offered, often buffet-style and affordably priced on a “per kilo” basis. More importantly, meals prepared and eaten by the family at home—including the midday meal—and therefore the habit of eating together, remain an integral part of the Brazilian way of life. Notwithstanding intense pressures, which include ubiquitous television and internet propaganda designed to turn eating and drinking into constant individual snacking [10], food and drink consumption is not yet dislocated and isolated from family and social life in Brazil. This is probably the most important factor protecting national and regional traditional food systems.

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