Shopping in supermarkets increases obesity in Kenya

Research from Kenya shows that shopping in supermarkets contributes to higher consumption of processed foods.

Blog: supermarkets

The ‘nutrition transition’, a term used for the transition from traditional diets – rich in cereal and fibre – to diets that contain more processed sugars and fats, has been on the radar since the early 90s. There is also a clear link between the nutrition transition and increased rates of obesity. However, researchers are just starting to link both of these to supermarkets. A better understanding of the nutrition effects of modern retail environments should help to design policies aimed at reducing negative health effects.

Matin Qaim and nutrition expert Kathrin Demmler – who recently joined the Malabo Montpellier Panel as a Research Associate - have analysed data collected in urban Kenya to assess whether supermarkets contribute to overweight, obesity and chronic diseases through their role in speeding up the nutrition transition. Their results confirm that the retail environment affects people’s food choices and nutritional outcomes with effects depending on the types of foods offered.

Demmler says: “supermarkets in small towns offer mainly processed and highly processed foods, sugary drinks and greasy snacks. Some products can be offered at cheaper prices because they come in bigger packet sizes or the retailer has a contract at scale, which is rarely found in the traditional retail sector. Governments and the private sector need to be aware of the effects supermarkets have on obesity and chronic diseases and be empowered to create an environment where customers can make healthy choices.”

It is possible for the spread of supermarkets to also have profoundly positive effects on nutrition. Access to cheaper food can improve food security and nutrition for people who are on low-incomes. Studies have also shown that cheap access to high energy food can have a beneficial effect on children by decreasing the levels of stunting. Supermarkets can offer more fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices or provide new food products that are lower in sugar, salt and fat.

The research suggests that regulations are needed to incentivise supermarkets to offer fresh products at reasonable prices. Alternatively, traditional fruit and vegetable vendors could be encouraged to set up stalls near the supermarket entrances, to give shoppers access to fresh foods. Measures that promote dietary diversity are also worth considering. Apart from regulations, this may also include consumer awareness building for the importance of fruits and vegetables in healthy diets. There is already some progress being made here with South Africa leading on implementing sugar and salt taxes, while Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya are developing nutrition labelling. 

Another key question that policymakers should seriously consider is where products in supermarkets come from? Most supermarkets buy their produce from global markets or big national farmers. This is understandable due to smaller local farms being unreliable, costs being cheaper when buying in bulk and the need to ensure consistency of deliveries. But if local farmers can be more involved in supermarket value chains through farmers’ associations then supermarkets are in a position to combat poverty and malnutrition.

Qaim’s research looks at how supermarkets are increasingly entering into contracts with smallholder farmers. The economist has analysed how this affects farmers. His figures show that incomes increase by up to 50 percent and that their food security improves significantly. However, there are also risks, sometimes supermarkets only pay for the vegetables they have actually sold rather than what they take from the farmers. Supermarkets can shift the risk of selling back onto farmers. It is the responsibility of local government and policymakers to incentivise supermarkets to work with smallholders and drive local economic growth.

The rise of obesity in Africa and chronic problem of farmers still living in poverty is not due to the expansion of supermarkets alone. But supermarkets have an important role to play in shaping local markets and are playing a part in speeding up the nutrition transition. It is clear that they influence people’s diets significantly. As the sector booms, it is crucial that the private sector and nutrition policymakers discuss how supermarket expansion could drive positive nutrition effects and start to innovate in this arena.

The opinions represented in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of individual Malabo Montpellier Panel members and their organizations.