A new report suggests that 50 percent of the world isn’t at a healthy weight, and it may be in large part due to the huge increase in vegetable oil the world now consumes.
Tim Benton, a professor at the University of Leeds, told the BBC that while vegetable oil used to be a rare commodity, soybean and palm oil are now so ubiquitous that they’re considered two of the main eight food groups (along with wheat, rice, corn, sugar, barley, and potatoes) that provide 85 percent of the world’s calories.
Over the past three decades, trade agreements have made vegetable oil cheaper and easier to produce, export, and import. This has had some positive externalities, as Benton points out. Namely, it’s helped reduce famine in a big way, and has allowed the “poorest of poor access to cheap calories.”
Simultaneously, worldwide obesity has doubled since 1980, and Benton suspects that it’s because people are eating more unhealthy imported foods instead of what’s locally available. Corinna Hawkes, the director of the Centre for Food Policy at the City University of London, told the BBC that it’s also possible that the low cost and increased availability of oil has led some countries’ to change the way they prepare food. For example, in China, it’s not uncommon for food to be deep-fried in oil, and people in Brazil use large amounts of oil in some traditional dishes.
Hawkes also raised the “quinoa question,” or the idea that the skyrocketing demand for quinoa in recent years has led to rising prices and scarcity for people in the countries in which it’s grown. The research is shaky; however, there is some anecdotal evidence that shows that the surge in demand for quinoa has raised Bolivian farmers’ incomes while simultaneously making it harder for them to afford to actually eat quinoa that in turn drives poor Bolivians toward cheaper, more processed foods.
And of course, technology has changed the way we live as well. The fact that you can basically work, eat, shop, and live almost completely online without having to get up and move around doesn’t do much to help the obesity crisis worldwide.
Ultimately, the obesity crisis is complicated. However, if nothing else, this is a good reminder that oil, while healthy, is also calorie-dense, so use it sparingly when cooking. And when possible, reach for olive oil for its heart-health benefits.