‘Nutrition Transition’ was a concept first proposed by the distinguished American scientist Barry Popkin in 1993 to describe the shift from a ‘traditional’ diet rich in plant-based food and fiber to one that is high in sugar, fats and animal products – the typical ‘Western’ diet. [1]

Most countries in the world have moved or are moving through this transition, with significant health consequences. The Nutrition Transition is inextricably linked to the other major societal transformations, such as urbanisation, an industrialised agricultural and food production system, reduction in daily energy expenditure, and an increase in sanitisation and associated reduction in infectious disease.

As we are all aware, this nutrition transition is associated with an increase in non-communicable diseases, often, but not always linked with increase rates of obesity. Our diets have become rich in calories, but often deficient in many of the micronutrients we need for good health. While generalisations are useful, it is often the exceptions that are particular insightful. Amongst all the 35 OECD countries, Japan and South Korea have the lowest rates of obesity at 3.7% and 5.3% respectively in adults (New Zealand comes in at 30.7%, and is the third highest behind Mexico and US) [2] , and these two Asian countries have managed to retain many aspects of their traditional diet culture within an industrialized and ‘fast food society’.

The global nutrition transition has been fueled by the success of our agricultural systems of rising to the challenge of increased production to feed the ever-increasing world population, and global trading in agricultural commodities. At a science meeting this week, an eminent New Zealand scientist summarised New Zealand agricultural and trade as one that ‘imports carbohydrates and exports fat’ – viz New Zealand imports cereals for human and animal consumption and exports dairy products. While I did not feel comfortable with this somewhat gross simplification, it does emphasise that our global agri-food systems are largely concerned with moving calories around the world, as opposed to providing high quality nutrition to all.

We now need a Second Nutrition Transition that can provides high quality nutrition to everyone across all social-economic strata and in both rural urban environments, in a form that will drive good life-long heath, as opposed to chronic food related illness. The HVN NSC is the world-leading example of the type of academic-industry collaboration and public funding needed to begin to head towards this second nutrition transition. New Zealand with its excellence in agricultural and food science and being an outward looking trading nation is in prime position to lead the way.

So, what will this Second Nutrition Transition look like? It needs to emphasise foods that deliver not just the optimum balance of the major macronutrients – protein, fats and carbohydrates, and the full range of micronutrients – minerals and vitamins – some of which can only be obtained from non-plant sources, but also sufficient fiber and bioactive food components to ensure a health gut microbiota and a healthy metabolism. Moreover, we need to produce, manufacture and trade our agricultural and food products in a sustainable manner in world that needs to move towards net zero carbon emissions, and it is incumbent on all the New Zealand NSC to work together towards this aim. So, I look forward to the day when I will hear at a science meeting of how New Zealand exports ‘high value nutrition and good health’ to the world.

Richard Mithen
Chief Scientist, High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge

[1] Popkin BM (1993). “Nutritional Patterns and Transitions”. Population and Development Review19 (1): 138–157.
[2] https://www.oecd.org/els/health-systems/Obesity-Update-2017.pdf