AN article published on these pages last Sunday, How Hungry is Pakistan? by Niaz Murtaza, brought up an issue that has increasingly held my attention hostage.
In recent years, several studies have been cited as saying that the rates of hunger and malnutrition in the country are rising sharply. What stuck in my mind was one where the malnutrition levels in post-flood Sindh were likened to those in Chad and Niger.
Mr Murtaza went back to several of those studies and wrote about how the basic facts or outcomes of many of them had been lost in the reporting.
According to his research, “Malnutrition figures in the 2001 and 2011 nutritional surveys match those in poor African countries even though poverty is about half in Pakistan.
“This paradox is because of two reasons in my opinion. The first is the status of Pakistani women (the keepers of family health) in education, income and decision-making which I feel is among the lowest across the almost 100 countries that I have visited.
“National nutritional surveys reveal that most Pakistani women lack nutritional education. So even if families can afford nutritious diets, children may not get it since parents lack nutritional knowledge.
“The second reason is poor government education and health facilities. Thus, Pakistan’s globally low social rankings are due to women’s disempowerment and government neglect, and not absolute poverty.”
Meanwhile, the low-cost, easily available, processed or convenience food sector is a relatively new phenomenon in Pakistan. As recently as 15 or 18 years ago, this country offered far more choices for eating relatively healthy fare rather than the converse.
There was little to no availability of convenience foods such as instant noodles, soups, quick-mix packets and so on. Shops that carried imported goods were few and far between, and expensive. There was a time, as many readers might remember, when the only chocolate to viably pester adults about was Paxy’s, and then later Jubilee; the others were imported, and expensive.
Towards the end of the millennium, though, that started changing. The Pakistani marketplace opened up to multinationals. Several set up manufacturing plants here, and local companies followed suit. All this brought prices down. Meanwhile, the country — or rather, certain sections of it — embarked on a bubble of relative economic prosperity; the middle and upper-middle classes had more disposable incomes.
From what I see being bought in supermarkets and bazaars, and young people and children eating, I think the younger generation’s eating habits may be on the cusp of change or already have changed. Of course everyone is still having daal roti and every household that can cooks fresh food.
But where supplements used to be fruit and desi snacks (not that they are particularly healthy either), these now seem to include large quantities of junk, processed and packeted foods that can, spread over a society, have serious adverse health consequences. As an experiment, next time you’re out and about, start counting the number of children with a packet of crisps in their hand, all the teenagers who want burgers and how many parents, looking for a snack to keep a toddler happy, buy a soda rather than a banana. It doesn’t help that many such products are aggressively marketed as healthy or ‘lite’.
This is not to say that anything that comes out of a box or packet is inherently unhealthy. The food industry has made giant leaps in manufacturing products that are good for you by containing fibre or added vitamins, etc, breakfast cereals being a case in point.
But worryingly, there are also several instances where the manufacturing giants — despite the presence of laws in many countries — mislead or lie to the consumer. Start reading ingredient lists and you will find yourself surprised often.
One multinational giant in particular that is taking over Pakistan, at least judging by the number of pies it has its fingers in and the aggression with which it is marketed, is internationally notorious for being the most litigated-against company for trying to fudge ingredient lists.
The most common obfuscation over which it was sued was the failure to mention that its formula for an instant cereal for young babies included sugar. But here, it is in ubiquitous use from the middle class upwards.
The costs are real — huge, in fact. In several developed countries, such foods have been around for several decades and did in fact alter diet and cookery choices; and they have the outcomes empirically assessable over a couple of generations.
The US has seen obesity, heart disease, diabetes etc soar, and counted the cost of an unhealthy population in real money having to be spent on the healthcare sector. The UK has experienced the same.
A survey there a few years ago found that not only did many people not know how to do even basic cooking properly, a worrying number would make mashed potatoes out of a packet rather than by putting a spud to boil.
These governments are urgently trying to alter this trajectory. In several countries and states, ‘fat taxes’ are being considered or have been imposed on foods and beverages with high sugar and salt content.
Similar measures are being taken against restaurants that bribe children into eating unhealthy through gifts and giveaways. The concern is severe enough to have produced an entire industry: glamorous, high-budget food shows and competitions that focus on good cooking, taking it out of the preserve of harried housewives and making it cool.
Beyond the stardom, this is the crucial function of people such as Anthony Bourdain or Nigella Lawson. No country wants to look after and pay for an unhealthy workforce that has eaten itself ill.
We’re just at the beginning of this path to nowhere. Individually and as a society, we can still alter the trajectory. Otherwise, we may well have half a population that is experiencing malnutrition due to poverty; and the rest is ill because it habitually eats the wrong things.
The writer is a member of staff.