India: The world is fat, but are McDonald's and Frito-Lay to blame?


My colleague Patrick Winn's report on 7-Eleven's dominance in Southeast Asia has me thinking this morning.

As GlobalPost's compelling "The World Is Fat" series makes clear, for the first time in history more people are obese than hungry across the world.  But are western multinationals like 7-Eleven, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Frito-Lay really to blame?

Leaving aside the question whether people should be held responsible for their own overconsumption, consider the prevalence of unhealthy indigenous foods, the increasingly sedentary lifestyles associated with the shift from agriculture and manual labor to IT services and marketing jobs, and the vast importance of increasing incomes and longer working hours in making people fat.

On my first trip to Asia, when I taught English for a summer in Taipei, I was convinced that western fast food was creating a generation of porkers. And so were my students. My favorites were two ten- and 12-year-old brothers who went by the English monickers "Billy" and "Little Jack" (like most wealthy Taiwanese kids of the day, they attended two separate English classes and also had a private American tutor--the Taipei equivalent of the Palm Beach tennis pro).

I'll just come right out and say it: Billy and Little Jack were both obsessed with what they called "Phet peebo." I used to have them write stories to practice their English writing, and two things invariably cropped up. (1) In Billy's essays, Little Jack was "in love with Jennifer," and in Little Jack's essays, Billy was "in love with Jennifer. (2) And at some point, there'd be a passage like, "Little Jack is a very diligent student. But he is very fat."  (Neither was fat at all, by the way).

One day, we played "English baseball" at a nearby school as a way for me to shirk the onerous duty of drilling them on vocabulary, and a pair of bespectacled twins who looked like Piggy in the movie version of The Lord of the Flies kept on lurking in the vicinity of the pitcher's mound until I made Billy ask them if they wanted to play. At the time, I didn't speak Chinese well enough to understand what he said, but they trotted out to the outfield to shag fly balls, until a delighted Billy, bubbling over with laughter, ran up to deliver his best English line of the summer: "Teacher! Teacher! I sink I don't have to pay enny mo-nee, and I get phet peebo help me!"

Too much McDonald's, and not enough baseball, I thought at the time.

These days, though, I'm in India, and I can't help wonder how Indian snacks like jalebis and pakoras, for example, really stack up against french fries and chips. (Jalebis are basically deep fried batter soaked in sugar syrup, while pakoras are deep fried vegetables).

I got a little help from India's Center for Science and Environment earlier this year, when they published a nutritional analysis of various western and indigenous fast foods. 

French fries were off the charts in trans-fats, but packaged Indian snacks were neck-and-neck with potato chips and instant noodles.

Unfortunately, they only addressed packaged Indian snacks and ignored ubiquitous street foods like jalebis, pakoras, aloo tikkis and so on -- implying, perhaps unwittingly, that the oil-soaked paranthas served on the corner are good for you, just because they're traditional.