Once the world’s largest exporter of commercial products, the United States continues to produce and disseminate a global range of goods from guns and munitions, financial instruments, and cultural icons. America may also be sending the world its obesity epidemic as others in developing nations adopt first-world eating and exercise habits.
Today, global health trends closely mirror economic patterns as much of the world catches up to the largest economy. A number of recent studies suggest America’s rising obesity crisis — the world’s second highest after Mexico — has begun to stabilize as more Americans eschew the dollar menu in favor of fruits, vegetables, and a trip to the gym. At the same time, populations in countries around the globe are becoming obese at a troubling rate, as nutritionists accuse the world’s superpower of exporting its excesses.
In Mexico, the new undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, a troubling obesity crisis may be largely caused by the voracious consumption of soda, at 43 gallons per capita annually. John Norris, of Foreign Policy, says that gluttony is not attributable to personal failure, but directly to U.S. agricultural policy. High tariffs on sugar along with subsidies for American corn have created a bonanza for manufacturers selling products with high-fructose corn syrup, which may cause markedly greater weight gain in comparison to sugar.
As immigrants poured across the border into the United states during the mid-1990s economic boom, America sent products such as junk food and sugary drinks in the other direction. According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Mexico’s rise in obesity spiked after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, whose “giant sucking sound” of American jobs to Mexico — as billionaire and former presidential candidate Ross Perot once put it — directly impacted Mexico’s health. The country then experienced a 1,200 percent increase in high-fructose corn syrup products from the U.S. between 1996 and 2012, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
Although genetics may be partially to blame, trade policy has been easier to implicate in research. Norris says American Samoa became obese after World War II, when America began exporting high-fat turkey tails to the island chain. With per capita consumption of turkey tails now at 44 pounds per year, 75 percent of Samoan islanders today are obese. And when locals attempted to ban the import of turkey tails, U.S. officials in 2007 beat the initiative as a measure of trade policy.
Many public health experts today marvel at the progression of human history as the world replaces one set of problems with another. "As fast as we get rid of all our traditional vectors of disease — infections, little microbes, bugs," Bruce Neal, professor at George Institute for Global Health in Sydney, Australia, tells the Indo-Asian News Service, "we are replacing them with the new vectors of disease, which are massive transnational, national, multinational corporations selling vast amounts of salt, fat and sugar."