Neoliberalism and Food: How We Circled Back to Traditional Diets


The introduction of processed foods into global diets reflects the long reach of capitalism, and its seamless incorporation into everyday life. Even though the alarming rates of obesity and heart disease are frequently associated with the United States and similar Western contexts, the effects that processed foods have had on traditional Latin American and African diets are unprecedented [10]. 

Between 1974 and 2003, there was a 400% increase in the share of calories coming from soft drinks in the context of Brazilian families [6]. According to the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), the increased consumption of “ultra-processed foods” directly correlates to the growing incidence of non-communicable diseases in Latin America [9]. But how exactly did we get here? How did companies like Nestle and Coca Cola infiltrate into global households and replace traditional foods and diets?

The history of the food industry’s power is often associated with the spread of neoliberalism. As free-market capitalist economic policies started to dominate politics, even realms of public health began to be influenced by corporations [7]. Governments began to take on an individualistic and “empowering” approaches to health, one where the individual made choices that directly affected their health [2]. This was particularly relevant to discussions surrounding food and health, where individuals may be blamed for making “bad” choices regarding their diet and fitness. 

The notion that we, as individuals, must take control of our health, and what we eat has been constructed to reinforce these neoliberal ideals to the advantage of corporations. The low prices of ultra-processed foods, such as pre-packaged meals, chips, and cookies, make them the most appealing option to those living in the lowest socioeconomic brackets, and who are already most susceptible to health conditions. In this way, free-market ideology replaces traditional diets and means of agriculture with ultra-processed food and “commodity agriculture.” 

Presenting often-oppressed populations with another pathway for marginalization and negative health outcomes is at the centre of the problem. Effectively, this has come to the attention of international organizations, like the World Health Organization (WHO). Earlier this year, PAHO released a series of recommendations for Latin America in hopes of promoting a more health-driven policy that cuts down on processed food promotion [9]. 

Changes in policy are necessary to counteract the power held by food industries but bring up questions of messaging coming from the government. If we consider the individual and lifestyle depiction of health, preferred by many governments, much of the responsibility still lies heavily on the individual. In this model, advertising tells individuals to take control of their health and to make better choices when grocery shopping or eating out, rather than addressing the reasons why people make “unhealthy” choices [5]. For these structural barriers of healthy eating to be minimized, we need to see an acknowledgement of power coming from the government.

The intricate relationship between industries and government when discussing food and health globally creates a problem that is difficult to address. When we consider how many traditional diets have changed internationally since World War II, it is clear where the answer lies. In Latin America, there has been a clear transition away from complex carbohydrates and fibers and towards processed sugars and high-fat products [1]. This is reflective of increased globalization and a need for faster, more transportable meals as work moves outside of the household. 

Proponents of moving back to traditional diets consisting mostly of vegetables and grains, with minimal meat and dairy, have been on the rise in the United States and Canada. This further emphasizes the powerful, yet damaging effects that industry has historically had on our health and the way we understand it. With this circling back to traditional ways, we can begin to understand how we can erase the effects that we are already seeing. 

Kevin Hall, of the National Institute of Health in the United States, is one of many public health professionals who asserts that the obesity epidemic is not caused by a single increase in macronutrient consumption or overall calories; it has to with our overall food environment [4]. For this reason, the Ontario Public Health Association (OPHA) have taken direct measures to train and educate their officials on the realities of our current food environment and the ways it is structured to disadvantage marginalized populations [8].

With these necessary strides occurring in North America, questions arise about how these same strategies and concepts can be translated globally in different cultures and regions. While the WHO and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in the United Nations have produced a series of applicable strategies and policy recommendations that are meant to be globally applicable, it is still worth asking how to deal with the advertising by the food industry in Latin American countries that have very little legislation to protect consumers [3].

Traditionally, meals across the world consisted of portions of grains, vegetables and meatthe diet promoted by most public health agencies today. The shift from this traditional diet to an ultra-processed one, created with the consumer in mind, is just one way in which neoliberal thinking has overtaken culture, prioritizing individual freedom at the expense of individual health.


[1] Bermudez, O. I., & Tucker, K. L. (2003). Trends in dietary patterns of Latin American populations. Cadernos de Saúde Pública, 19(suppl 1), S87–S99.

[2] Coburn, D. (2010). Health and health care: A political economy perspective. In T. Bryant, D. Raphael, & M. Rioux (Eds.), Staying alive: Critical perspectives on health, illness, and health care (pp. 65–91). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

[3] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2016). Influencing food environments for healthy diets: summary. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

[4] Hall, K. D. (2018). Did the food environment cause the obesity epidemic? : Did the food environment cause the obesity epidemic? Obesity, 26(1), 11–13.

[5] Minkler, M., Wallace, S. P., & McDonald, M. (1994). The political economy of health: A useful theoretical tool for health education practice. International Quarterly of Community Health Education, 15(2), 111–125.

[6] Monteiro, C. A. (2009). Nutrition and health. The issue is not food, nor nutrients, so much as processing. Public Health Nutrition, 12(5), 729–731.

[7] Nestle, M. (2019). How neoliberalism ruins traditional diets and health. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, 7(8), 595.

[8] Nutritional Resource Centre. (2015). Taking action to create a healthier food environment. Toronto: Ontario Public Health Association.

[9] Pan-American Health Organization. (2019). Ultra processed food and drink products in Latin America: Sales, sources, nutrient profiles, and policy implications. Washington, D.C.: Pan-American Health Organization.

[10] Turner, C., Aggarwal, A., Walls, H., Herforth, A., Drewnowski, A., Coates, J., … Kadiyala, S. (2018). Concepts and critical perspectives for food environment research: A global framework with implications for action in low- and middle-income countries. Global Food Security, 18, 93–101.