By Vittoria Acampora
The diffusion of purchased processed foods has become widespread in both urban and rural regions across the globe. Over time, innovations in processing staple foods like rice, wheat, and edible oils have led to time and energy-saving methods, offering opportunities for improving nutrition through techniques like food fortification. Small and large-scale food processing has expanded to include prepared foods, both unbranded and packaged: this trend is well-established in Asia and Latin America and is quickly gaining momentum in Africa.
The rise of working women and commuting men in both urban and rural areas has led to an increased demand for prepared foods due to reduced time for traditional home cooking and food preparation. However, the dynamics of supply and demand for processed foods are intricate, as there is a surge in supply, with heavy investments in various types of processed foods, from minimally to highly processed. Aggressive marketing and low pricing have further boosted consumption, even prompting policy interventions to curb the consumption of highly processed foods and sugary drinks.
Minimally processed and low processed foods play a crucial role in a healthy diet and offer substantial employment opportunities across the rural-urban spectrum. On the other hand, there's mounting evidence linking highly processed foods to issues like obesity and non-communicable diseases. Many countries are taking steps to limit consumption through targeted measures, including school bans and population-wide policies such as taxation and clear labeling. Recent studies show that the expansion of food supply chains in the processing sector offers substantial employment across rural and urban areas, especially for women and youth. However, these studies often lack detailed information about product portfolios to assess the balance of benefits and potential harms to healthy diets.
Analyzing household consumption of both low processed and highly processed foods provides insights into food demand across the rural-urban spectrum. The demand for processed foods in Africa is expected to continue rising with urbanization, increased non-farm employment in rural areas, and the resulting need for convenient foods. Commuting to work also raises the opportunity cost of time, leading to purchases of meals and snacks from roadside stalls, restaurants, and market kiosks.
The diffusion of processed foods is extensive in both high- and low-food-budget countries, and even households in rural areas far from cities or towns consume processed foods. While processed food consumption is higher in cities, it declines gradually as you move into peri-urban areas. However, there is a more significant drop in peri-urban areas of intermediate cities in low-food-budget countries, dispelling the idea of a sharp rural-urban divide in processed food consumption. On the other hand, low processed foods have higher consumption value shares compared to highly processed foods, especially in urban and peri-urban areas of low-food-budget countries.
In low-food-budget countries, consumption of low processed foods is higher in urban and peri-urban areas, while the share of highly processed foods is higher in almost all areas, except large cities and their surroundings. This suggests that off-farm employment is more prevalent in rural areas of high-food-budget countries, driven by development and urbanization.
Other factors, like the education level of the household head, household size, and dependency ratio, also play a role in determining the consumption value share of highly processed foods. In summary, these results offer insights into the consumption patterns of processed foods and food from outside the home, shedding light on the impact of location, income, and employment on dietary choices in different types of countries.
As OCCAM, we are strongly committed to the food security goal and we believe in a proper balance of food consumption: It's crucial to continue efforts to make healthier food options accessible and affordable for all.