MELAKA, MALAYSIA: The Age of European Colonisation began in 1488 and eventually it had a major impact on the common diet of all Europeans, but at a huge human cost for people elsewhere.  After the collapse of colonialism, the industrialised Western diet together with its processed foods and chronic diseases spread across the world in recent decades through what has been called coca-colonisation.

In 1488 this port city of Melaka was Southeast Asia’s top trading hub/entrepôt for exotic spices from islands to the East coupled with tin and peppers from the Malay peninsula (modern Malaysia excluding both Singapore and 2 Malaysian states on the island of Borneo). It was at the peak of its power as a new sultan (king) took control of most of the peninsula with the city of Melaka located in the Southwest on the Strait of Melaka, bordered by the Indonesian island of Sumatra on the western side. The historically crucial waterway links the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, with the Indian Ocean.

Chinese, Indian, Arab and Persian traders purchased spices here, for onward shipment east to China or to the Northwest through sea and land routes to East Mediterranean ports of Alexandria and Beirut, to the Republic of Venice — the main European distribution centre.

Melaka’s destiny would soon be 446 years of colonial rule by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.

Demand for Asian spices coupled with advances in ship technology and navigation were the triggers for almost 500 years of exploitation.

The yearning for spices in Europe

Besides culinary demand in Europe for Eastern spices, there has been a long history of both medicinal use and as aphrodisiacs.

Pepper, mainly available from India, was the cheapest Asian spice while the fine spices from the Spice Islands were only a luxury for the European rich. Ginger, cardamom and turmeric also came from India and cinnamon was native to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Saffron, another expensive spice, was native to Persia (Iran).

In the mid-1300s when the Black Death killed one-quarter to one-third of the European population, some of the rich used nutmeg in a necklace to ward off the bubonic plague that was transmitted originally from rats to fleas and lice that were human parasites. In modern times, the nutmeg has been found to contain a natural pesticide.

The nutmeg tree produces 2 spices – the nutmeg seed, and mace which is the bright red, lacy covering of the seed. Both spices have psychoactive properties.

Clove, the aromatic flower buds of the clove tree, have been traded since ancient times and have been recorded in Han China (206 BCE–220 AD) as an ingredient in perfume, and Rome where Pliny the Elder, who died in 79 AD refers to them in his ‘Naturalis Historia’ book. The name in several languages means nail because of the shape.

According to Asian economic historians, in the second half of the 15th century, when the clove trade

was becoming relatively reliable in a series of stages between the Maluku Archipelago (also known as the Moluccas, in Eastern Indonesia) through Melaka, South India and the Levant (the Middle East to Westerners since the early 20th century) to Venice, the price was still about 100 times higher in Venice than at the production centre and about 30 times higher than in Melaka. A century earlier these ratios have been estimated at two or three times higher.

The failures of the Crusades had given Venice (after defeating the maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa in wars) and Arab traders opportunities to make super profits on spices, which attracted interest from European adventurers to capture. By the mid-1700s, attention had turned to other stimulants such as tea, coffee and tobacco.

The volcanic islands in North Maluku became known as the Spice Islands (according to 'The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable' the name is recorded from the early 18th century) because nutmeg and cloves originated there and until colonialism were only grown there.

Boatmen transported the spices to Melaka and as the archipelago has 1027 islands with a sea to land ratio of 90:10, the location of the spice-growing islands was not known to many people.

Original human costs of Western diet

The almost extermination of the native populations of the Americas through imported diseases and ethnic cleansing; the westward shipment of 12.5 million African slaves between 1525 and 1866 according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database; the outsourcing of colonialism in Asia to the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company, which became the world’s biggest illicit drug cartels in history, and the Dutch genocide in 1621 on the Spice Islands, were part of the costs.

Karl Marx who had coined the term “religion is the opium of the people” in 1843, wrote in 1858 that the British Empire was “preaching free trade in poison”, and by the start of the 20th century China with a population of 400 million was in the grip of an opium addiction disaster on a scale that had never been seen before or since, in the history of humanity.

One estimate of the population of North America in the late 15th century is 18 million – bigger than the then combined total for France and England. By 1900 the native population of the United States had plunged to about 250,000. Compared with the Europeans who had a level of immunity to diseases because of long proximity to domesticated animals, the indigenous Americans had none to for example smallpox.    

Into the 20th century, Belgian king Leopold II became the first of the 3 genocidal beasts (followed by Hitler and Stalin) of modern European history. He had been gifted the Congo Free State in 1885 and the crimes against humanity in his rubber plantations, through forced labour, starvation and murder resulted in the deaths of an estimated 10 million people. Also, in the early 20th century Portuguese owners of African slave plantations were suppliers of cocoa to Britain’s leading chocolate makers: Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree.

In 1765 the British East India Company, which in terms of power had eclipsed its Dutch rival by then, won control of Bengal (comprising modern-day Bangladesh and West Bengal in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent), and from 1770 a third of the population or about 10 million people died. Richard Stevenson, a historian, has written, “The Famine of 1770 was a simple famine. The British had removed a large fraction of the coinage, evidently, which destroyed the mechanism of the exchange of goods. It is difficult to buy food when there is no money.”

After the collapse of the colonial system, the commercial impact on indigenous cultures became more benign and in his 1973 novel ‘Call Girls’, Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born British novelist, journalist, and critic, has his character Niko complain about the spread of American culture across the world through products such Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, KFC, and Hollywood films.  Starbucks was then a single coffee store that had opened in Seattle in 1971.

"You think it's a minor nuisance, but it is a global phenomenon, spreading global corruption. It is levelling down all cultures to the lowest common denominator, to a stereotyped norm, a synthetic pseudoculture, expanding like a plastic bubble,” Niko said while hitting his walking stick on the ground. “Colonialism is dead; now we have coca-colonisation, all over the world.”

Colonialism and globalisation of food and beverages

Coca-Cola is today sold in almost all countries across the globe and was originally marketed as “patent medicine”. The name refers to coca leaves (cocaine) from South America, and kola nuts infused with caffeine from African tropical rainforests. The 1886 launch recipe also included additional ingredients that had originated in many parts of the world, including nutmeg oil from the Spice Islands.

Before colonialism, in Europe there was no tea, coffee, tomatoes, potatoes, cacao (chocolate), vanilla, chilli, cotton or tobacco, several varieties of fruit (oranges, native to Indonesia, were grown on the Canary Islands in 1488) while cane sugar, native to Pacific islands, was grown in the Mediterranean region but was an indulgence for the rich, and ranked in price with the spices of the East, including pepper (sugar beet was only commercialised for sugar extraction from the early 19th century). Upland cotton which accounts for about 90% of global production, originated in northern Yucatán, Mexico and the sunflower, the source of cooking oil, was also native to North America.

Asian rice was introduced to the Iberian peninsula by the Moors in the 10th century and Africa is the origin of American rice that relied on slaves. The popular Uncle Ben’s rice brand has an image of an African-American who was a maître d' hotel at a Chicago restaurant.

The common Arabica coffee bean is said to have originated on the highlands of south-west Abyssinia (area now in modern Ethiopia) but Yemen (Arabic for Southern Arabia) is where it was first cultivated and sold to traders at the port of Mocha (al-Mukhā). The Arabic name qahwa was originally used for wine and the words coffee and cafe both derive from it.

What is called Arabic coffee in the Middle East today is the liquid from boiled green seeds (shed of their red skin) with cardamom spice added, providing a very different taste to roasted coffee, I can attest.

The Spanish introduced cocoa to Europe in 1528; in 1610 the Dutch brought Chinese tea to Amsterdam while coffee in Europe is said to have been first served in Venice in 1615.

Slavery and forced labour were essential for globalising many foods, and both coffee and tea. Sugar also harvested by slaves, helped to make the beverages popular. The diffusion of cotton also depended on slave labour.

The Dutch East India Company planted stolen Mocha coffee seedlings on the Indonesian island of Java in 1696 and by 1730, the forced labour output was the market leader in Europe. Later slaves developed plantations in French colonies and the South American colonies of Spain and Portugal.

In 1770, a Frenchman named Pierre Poivre (Peter Pepper) stole clove and nutmeg seedlings from the

Dutch-controlled Spice Islands and they ended up flourishing on Seychelles, Mauritius, Réunion, and especially Zanzibar. The British East India Company (EIC) brought the nutmeg to Pulau Pinang, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Sri Lanka, the West Indies — in particular, the island of Grenada.

There were some wild tea trees in India but it was the EIC from the 1820s which developed a commercial tea industry in Assam and Darjeeling from Chinese seeds, again using forced labour.

The sweet potato had been found in the Caribbean but it was the Spanish who encountered the common potato on the Andes in the former Incan Empire.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation: “The first evidence of potato growing in Europe dates from 1565, on the Canary Islands. By 1573, the potato was cultivated on the Spanish mainland…Potatoes were grown in London in 1597 and reached France and the Netherlands soon after.”

The first potato arrived in Ireland sometime in the first decade of the 17th century and across Northern Europe, it was only when it was seen as a convenient way of feeding armies and a solution for famines that it became common. However, in the 1840s the blight that swept Europe hit Ireland hard because the potato supplied 80% of individual calorie intake.

Meanwhile as more disease-resistant potatoes were being grown European colonialism and emigration were taking the potato to all corners of the globe.


The Portuguese in the westernmost country in Europe were exploration pioneers. They had superiority in ship design – in particular the caravel, a light ship for sailing to windward and capable of remarkable speed; expertise in map making while the firepower from cannon on ships would outclass Asian defences. Portugal also had a history of exploration off the West coast of Africa, while of course plunder and riches were also motivations.

The build-up of new possessions from early in the 15th century included the coastal city of Ceuta North Africa (1415, and now owned by Spain); the Madeira Archipelago (1419), over 900 km distant from Portugal; the Azores 1,525 km west of the homeland (discovered 1427; settled from 1439); Cape Verde Islands (1462) at a distance of 2,918 km, and São Tomé and Príncipe at a distance of 4,619 km (discovered 1471 and settled from 1493).

The Portuguese also developed expertise in slave trading.

In 1452 Pope Nicholas V published a papal bull called ‘Dum Diversas’ that granted Portugal and Spain “full and free permission to invade, search out, capture and subjugate unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be... And to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.”

However, other popes took a contrary view and in the 1530s Pope Paul III rejected the claims of the European colonisers that the natives were animals without souls. ‘Subliminus Dei’ (1537) stated: "[We] decree and declare by these present letters that the same Indians and all other peoples – even though they are outside the faith … are not to be reduced to slavery."

In early 1488 the Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias and his crew in a flotilla of 3 ships became the first known Europeans to sail into the Indian Ocean from the southern tip of Africa.  King João (John) II of Portugal named the rocky promontory at the southern end of Cape Peninsula, Cabo da Boa Esperança (Cape of Good Hope).

It was 35 years since the 21-year old Ottoman emperor had captured Constantinople, the capital of

the Eastern Christian Church, and the much-sought European sea-route to India and the rest of Asia, to avoid Islamic lands, was a huge triumph for Portugal.

The conquests begin

As early as the 6th century BCE, Pythagoras — and later two other Greek wise men, Aristotle and Euclid — had stated that the world was round, not flat. When Christopher Columbus (Italian: Cristoforo Colombo), a native of the Republic of Genoa, in the 1480s had sought the support of Portugal for an Atlantic expedition to the Spice Islands, with himself getting a 10% cut from trade, the advisers to the king had doubts that the Indies (Asia) was as near as he claimed.     

In October 1492, 10 weeks after the Columbus expedition had left Spain, Rodrigo de Triana, a seaman on the Pinta, was the first man to sight land. Later Columbus mistook the island of Cuba for Cathay (China).

In May 1498, Vasco da Gama’s Portuguese expedition arrived off the Southwest Indian city of Calicut (now known as Kozhikode), with the help of a Kenyan navigator. It was a journey of almost 8,000 km from the Cape of Good Hope and the first direct sea voyage from Europe to Asia.

Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain had asked Columbus to bring back black pepper but he returned with chilli peppers that were native to Mexico and were not pepper! On his fourth voyage to the Americas in 1502, Columbus was introduced to cacao, the bean-like seeds from which cocoa and chocolate are made. They are native to Central America.

Vasco da Gama returned in 1502 to bombard Calicut and he sailed home from India with 1,700 tons of spices — a figure that was similar to Venetian annual imports in the late 15th century. In 1510, the Portuguese burned Calicut and captured Goa, north of Calicut on the Malabar coast.

The Portuguese wanted to have forts at 3 sea route choke points — Hormuz, Melaka and Aden —  to have control of the spice trade to Europe.

In 1507, they seized control of an island at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz, leading to the Persian Gulf.  Melaka was captured in 1511 and later that year, 3 ships carried the first Europeans to the Spice Islands. A year later, the defenders of Aden, at the entrance to the Red Sea, repulsed a Portuguese attempt to seize the city.

In the 16th century, while the Portuguese did not succeed in monopolising the European spice market, the new sea route did bring real or inflation-adjusted prices down while pepper and clove consumption rose.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 ‘Treasure Island’ novel, Long John Silver has a pet parrot called Captain Flint who constantly shrieks “Pieces of eight!”

The Real de a Ocho, the Eight Royals Coin, or the Piece of Eight (Spanish: Peso de Ocho) was minted in the 1590s and became known as the Spanish dollar — the first international currency.

Massive silver mine finds in the 1540s in the former Incan Empire (area of modern Bolivia) and Mexico triggered a surge in prices across Europe in the second half of the century.

However, Spain’s economic output per head remained stagnant in the 500 years to 1800!

Dutch_spice_islands, Banda_Neira

A copy of a 1724 painting of the Dutch Belgica fort on the Banda Neira island, a century after the Dutch
genocide on the Banda Islands (Spice Islands). The volcano on Banda
Api (Malay for fire) is on the left.

The Dutch and English join the game

In the closing decades of the 16th century, the power of Spain and Portugal began to wane. Following

the failure of the 1588 Spanish armada against England, the Dutch in 1639 struck a mortal blow against their arch-enemy by sinking an armada of over 70 Spanish-Portuguese ships off the coast of England, putting an end to Iberian maritime supremacy.

From the 17th century, the Dutch and English were fortunate that China did not actively oppose their presence in Asia.

In the first 3 decades of the 15th century, China’s Ming dynasty had sent 7 massive armadas through the Strait of Melaka to the Indian Ocean to project its power and to reinforce its tributary system where other Asian states were politically autonomous but had to acknowledge the Middle Kingdom or Empire (centre of the Earth) as superior to them. In common with the Japanese, not only were other Asians inferior to Chinese, Europeans were also.

The huge nine-masted "treasure ships" together with smaller ships could amount to a fleet of up to 250 vessels. However, after 1433, the empire turned inward with troubles on its borders. Besides it was self-sufficient and also the world’s biggest economy.

Portuguese envoys arriving at Canton (modern Guangzhou) with sailing crews were either public executed or imprisoned but the Chinese relented in 1557 by agreeing to a permanent and Portuguese trade base at Macau.

In 1580 the king of Portugal died without an heir and Philip II of Spain seized the throne, claiming a blood relationship. A year later the Dutch Republic (1581-1795) officially known as the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, was founded after the rejection of Spanish rule.

The Republic was the first society in the world to exhibit all the characteristics of a modern economy; this was before both the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the French Revolution. In 1600 it’s economic output per head was the highest in Europe and like the Portuguese a century before, it was a ship innovation leader.

Typically, one trading voyage was financed at a time and there was always a risk from weather and piracy. For example, Jacob van Neck left Amsterdam in May 1598 in command of 8 ships. Van Neck returned in 15 months — a record for the time. Four of his ships proceeded to the Spice Islands. While an expedition in 1595-97 made no real profit, Van Neck's profit was 265%.

In 1600 Queen Elizabeth I signed the royal charter for the establishment of the English Company Trading to the East Indies (the then European name for Asia), known as the British East India Company, and it was given a monopoly of trade east of the Cape of Good Hope while the States-General of the Dutch Republic chartered the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) — United East India Company in English, but commonly known as the Dutch East India Company. It too was given a monopoly of Asian trade.

In two decades the VOC had the attributes of a modern company with shares traded on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, a permanent capital and limited liability. By 1641 when it captured Melaka, it had taken control of the Spice Islands and had ejected the English and Portuguese from the markets.

Having burned the Javanese town of Jakarta in 1619, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the VOC director general for Asia, turned his attention to the 11 tiny volcanic islands of Banda in the Maluku Archipelago, where the local leaders resisted an exclusive supply contract with the Dutch for nutmeg.

Coen brought in Japanese Samurai to assist in a campaign of genocide against the islanders.

Up to 14,000 were massacred; Coen gave the nutmeg plantations to Dutch planters and he brought in slaves to do the manual work.

By the 1650s the VOC had monopoly control of the clove trade from other islands in the group of Spice Islands and the accumulated dividends together with capital gains from rising share prices would have returned thirteen times an original investment or an average total return of 27%. After 1650, investors’ returns just averaged 4.0 to 3.5% annually, similar to the return on government bonds.

Following the expulsion of the Portuguese from Japan, the Dutch promised not to promote Christianity, and operating from Dejima — an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki — from the early 1640s, they were the only Europeans allowed to trade with the country for over 200 years.

Melaka was estimated to have a population of 50,000 to 100,000 in 1500 and over 900,000 in 2017. It was officially governed by the British in 1826-1957 but when France took control of the Netherlands during the Napoleonic period, the British became the de facto rulers of the Malay peninsula.

The Banda Islands had a population of 18,000 in 2010. They still grow nutmeg but life is at subsistence level with tourism and fishing providing some income.

The opium trade

The Dutch began selling Indian opium in Melaka and on islands such as Java from the 1650s. They also used opium to buy Chinese tea and in 1745 a separate company, Amfioen-Soaeteit (Open Society), was chartered in the Netherlands to enable staff of the Dutch East India Company to profit from the drugs trade.

In 1773 the British East India Company (EIC) declared a monopoly on opium production and in 1781, the EIC took over the purchase of all opium produced for it in India. It sold the drug at auctions in Calcutta to traffickers working under an EIC licence. It was then shipped to British-owned warehouses in Canton (Guangzhou), South China, for sale with the help of corrupt Chinese officials.

Opium became India’s biggest export with more than 1 million farmers across 500,000 acres of prime land in the Ganges River valley producing opium for the Empire by 1900 – the EIC had been dissolved in 1874.

Opium had been used in China for medicinal purposes for a millennium before the arrival of European colonists in Asia and when taken orally, it had a bitter taste. That changed when Dutch traders are said to have introduced the opium pipe to China in the 17th century. The pipe enabled the drug to be vapourised while being heated.

In 1729 in response to rising addiction levels, the Yongzheng emperor banned the import and sale of opium threatening confiscation of ships. About 13 tons of opium were imported into China at the time.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime opium exports from India to China rose from just 75 metric tons in 1775 to more than 2,500 tons in 1839 and the proportion of opium in total Chinese imports rose to around 50% in the first decade of the 19th century and remained at that level or higher for most of the rest of the 19th century.

The ailing Qing dynasty (1644-1911; also known as Ch'ing or Manchu) tried to lower the addiction rate by confronting opium smugglers, which resulted in opium wars, in 1839-42 and 1856-60, in which China was first forced to cede Hong Kong to the British in addition to the cession of 5 ports for British trade and residence, and the right of British citizens to be tried by British courts. The end of the second war, an Anglo-French affair, resulted in demands for access to more ports, embassy openings in Peking (Beijing) and the legalisation of opium.

When the Chinese had second thoughts, the colonists captured Peking and burned the emperor's summer palace.

Opium imports peaked at 6,500 tons in 1880 as the Chinese were now producing the poppy.

China’s production was at 35,000 tons in 1906, according to information provided by the Chinese delegation to the International Opium Commission of Shanghai (1909) and it was estimated that 27% of the Chinese adult population were addicted.

The commission was told by the British authorities in Malaya (modern Malaysia) that 53 percent of public revenue at the ports of Singapore, Melaka and Pinang, came from opium.

Chinese authorities in 1839 had seized 20,283 chests of opium (about 1,300 tons) from British traders in Canton without compensation and dumped it into the Pearl River.

Warren Delano, the grandfather of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, made a fortune in China in the 1830s, working for a Boston company that smuggled Turkish opium into China.

In 1773 when the British East India Company (EIC) shipped Chinese tea that was dumped in Boston Harbor, the tea had likely been paid for via proceeds of the opium trade, while the Boston merchants were not protesting high-taxed tea as presented in the history books.  The Tea Act of 1773 was passed in London to enable a cash-strapped EIC to offload tea in the American Colonies at a reduced price and the Boston merchants who organised the Boston Tea Party were smugglers of cheaper Dutch supplied tea!

Lord Macartney, 1793, China

Macartney bows rather than kowtows! The real image of the emperor is below!

An Irishman meets the Emperor of China

George Macartney, a native of Antrim and graduate of Trinity College Dublin, in 1773 wrote a book on his period in office as chief secretary of Ireland. He was a member of both the Irish and British parliaments and he made clear that Ireland formed part of “a vast empire on which the sun never sets and whose bounds nature has not yet ascertained."

Twenty years later, Lord Macartney was in China as the British envoy, seeking an agreement on trade as Britain in the first decades of the Industrial Revolution sought to have China open its market for its manufactures and agree to diplomatic relations.

Emperor QuinalongThrough conquests in the 17th and 18th centuries China had doubled in size and according to Kenneth Pomeranz’s book ‘The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy’ (2000), there were areas like the Yangzi delta, around modern-day Shanghai, where the standard of living before the Industrial Revolution was comparable to some wealthy areas in Europe.

However, authors of a 2017 Oxford University paper say: “Italy had already forged ahead by 1300. At this point, however, and even until the eighteenth century, it is quite possible that a relatively rich Chinese region such as the Yangzi delta was on a par with the most developed parts of Europe. But Chinese GDP per capita declined sharply during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), so that by the middle of the 18th century, the gap between China and the most developed parts of Europe was too large to be bridged by regional variation within China.”

The Macartney visit in 1793 was the most important Western mission to China since 21-year old

Marco Polo, together with his father and an uncle, in 1275 met China’s colonial ruler, Kublai Khan — a grandson of Genghis Khan — at the Grand Khan’s summer residence in Shangdu, Inner Mongolia (immortalised as Xanadu by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge), north of the Great Wall.

The British delegation had arrived in China with gifts for Emperor Qianlong’s 82nd birthday, in about 600 parcels that cost the East India Company £15,610. The emperor had reigned for almost 60 years.

Macartney described how the emperor was carried in a palanquin by 16 bearers, into a tented pavilion at the Qing dynasty’s Imperial Garden-Palace at Rhee, in the mountains 230 km from Beijing (in Chengde, Hebei Province). The British delegation knelt on one knee while the Chinese there kowtowed —  Macartney had made clear before the audience that he wouldn’t participate in the rigmarole of 3 kneelings and 9 touchings of the forehead on the ground.

Whether it was the refusal to kowtow or the Chinese government’s knowledge of British activities in India, the letter from Qianlong to King George III issued the following day, rejected all demands: “I have already taken note of your respectful spirit of submission, have treated your mission with extreme favour…our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was, therefore, no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce”.

The imperial treasury had been flush with funds in the mid-1770s but the treasury was depleted when the emperor abdicated in 1796.

Trade figures in the 1820s show how important opium was to the India-China-British triangular trade: British India was exporting £22 million worth of opium and cotton to China; the UK was importing £20 million worth of tea from China; and the UK was exporting £24 million in machinery and textiles to British India — the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution had made some British textiles competitive in India.

Time to adjust Western diet?

While modern globalisation has lifted many people out of poverty, for the first time in human history the world today has more overweight than underweight people. McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that by 2030 half the world’s population will be either overweight or obese (BMI or Body Mass Index is defined as the body mass divided by the square of the body height and is universally expressed in units of kg/m², resulting from mass in kilograms and height in metres. A ratio of 25 and higher is officially classified as overweight by the World Health Organisation [WHO] and those with 30 and above are obese).

The Irish have got fat as the cost of food has fallen.

The price of 5 main world food commodities adjusted for inflation, has risen by just 10% in 56 years to 2018 according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation while data from the CSO show that the percentage spent on food in an average Irish household budget has almost halved to 15% in the period 1980-2016. 

Ireland is among 7 rich countries where the overweight rate of adults in the population is at 61% or higher and in coming decades the Western diet may have to change again.

The world population is forecast to grow by 2 billion to 9 billion in 2050 while increasing demand for meat and dairy in developing countries will clash with climate change goals — as two-thirds of developing countries depend on commodity products for 60% or more of their exports according to the UN, some will continue to struggle.

The National Geographic in its report ‘The Evolution of Diet’ says that with their primitive tools, most hunter-gatherer groups did not consistently rely on meat as animals often outfoxed them.

“What bothers a lot of paleoanthropologists is that we actually didn’t have just one caveman diet,” the report quotes Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York City. “The human diet goes back at least two million years. We had a lot of cavemen out there”.

The National Geographic says “In other words, there is no one ideal human diet…the real hallmark of being human isn’t our taste for meat but our ability to adapt to many habitats — and to be able to combine many different foods to create many healthy diets. Unfortunately, the modern Western diet does not appear to be one of them.”

Rich people used to be fat and the poor were thin. Now it’s the reverse.

In his 1937 book, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, on the grim conditions of the English working class, George Orwell wrote: “The basis of their diet is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potato — an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread?… Yes, it would, but the point is, no human being would ever do such a thing...A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man does not…When you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want to eat something a little bit tasty”.

In the US the big food and beverage firms like their tobacco counterparts before them, have found the route to addiction with the “bliss point” being the right mix of sugar, fat and salt to trigger cravings.

In 2015 The New York Times reported that Coca-Cola had teamed up with scientists to promote a new “science-based” solution to the obesity crisis: “get more exercise and worry less about cutting calories”.

This was a fraud on the public.

While exercise is good for the body, solely relying on it to cut weight is foolish as physical activity accounts for just 10 to 30% of calorie burning and exercise is a subset of that.

The Cleveland Clinic says there is good and bad fat but reducing fat intake may not reduce weight “because we often replace the missing fat in our diets with sugar.  (Remember, our body converts all processed carbs, even wheat bread, into sugar.) When blood sugar rises, insulin spikes and drives all our body’s fuel into fat cells, especially around the belly. This triggers more hunger, cravings and overeating.”

The US food and beverage sector spent $28 million on lobbying in 2017 according to the US Senate Office of Public Records. The spend was at $58 million in the recession year of 2009 when there was a risk of a ”soda tax.”

A study published in January 2016 in BMJ (British Medical Journal) Open with 9,317 participants, shows that more than half of Americans' calories come from "ultra-processed" foods, which contain lots of sodium, synthetic trans fats, and artificial sweeteners to make them more palatable and tasty, and to extend their shelf life. Some ultra-processed foods include:

Certain breads like white bread;
Potato chips;
Packaged snack cakes
Frozen pizza;
Soft drinks.

South Pacific Islanders have the highest rates of obesity in the world. They have had about half a century to genetically adapt to the sedentary lifestyle and Western diet that people in the West have adapted to over several centuries.

Pic on top: Surviving Dutch colonial buildings in Melaka

Michael Hennigan has lived in Kuala Lumpur since 2007

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