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Publication | 16 December 2020

The processed food revolution in African food systems and the double burden of malnutrition

African consumers have purchased increasing amounts of processed food over the past 50 years. The opportunity cost of time of women and men has increased as more of them work outside the home, driving them to buy processed food and food prepared away from home to save arduous home-processing and preparation labor. In the past several decades, this trend has accelerated with a surge on the supply side of the processing sector and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and large private companies making massive aggregate investments. Packaged, industrialized, ultra-processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are a growing proportion of the processed food consumed. Also, in the past several decades, overweight and obesity have joined the long-standing high levels of stunting and wasting among children and extreme thinness among women of childbearing age. Together these phenomena have formed a double burden of malnutrition (DBM). The DBM has emerged as an important health problem in sub-Saharan Africa. The rise of the DBM and the increase in ultra-processed food consumption are linked. Policy makers face a dilemma. 

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