McAsia: The Columbian Exchange Revisited – Western Food Culture Hits Asia Hard

The neon lights say it all: Makudonarudo – Hanbaga. A Japanese McDonalds tempting passerbyes with the delights of Western fast food culture.

The Columbian Exchange saw the transfer of all sorts of things between the Old and New Worlds including a vast array of food stuffs. Europe was transformed by the potato as the nutritious and hardy tubor grew the populations of Europe to the point where leaders felt the need to expand their living space resulting in world wars. The Americas were introduced to all sorts of new foods in the form of domesticated animals. This snorting Old World biomass quickly and completely trampled and/or ate up most of the America’s indigenous flora allowing Old Word plants to take root and eventually dominate the American landscape.

The transfer of food items has not slowed down one bit and the impact is just as great today. Recently the world has experienced an explosion of food cultures moving around the world due primarily to globalization and the tremendous ability of certain multinationals to push their products. Ten years ago “pad tai” to most living in the US was an exotic culinary adventure. Now adays it is boxed and frozen and sitting in very close proximity to the Swanson Hungry Man meatloaf dinner in the frozen food aisle of many local supermarkets. But it is the transfer of Western fast food culture around the world that is perhaps enjoying the most recent success, and not without some alarming results.

The other day we conducted a survey in class of how often the kids eat fast food in Jakarta and the establishemnets where they do their eating. The list was primarily of Western fast food places, most from the US. Indonesia, like many Asian countries have a relatively healthy traditional diet consisting primarily of rice, vegetables and a bit of meat and fish now and then. But with the influx of cheap and very available Western fast food the dietary trends of many Asians is changing and the repurcussions are quite dramatic. Many experts predict that health problems related to eating processed Western style fast foods and snacks will reach epidemic proportions as the present generation matures. The health care systems of most Asian countries are not prepared to deal with a massive influx of patients suffering health issues caused by eating processed foods with a high sugar and fat content. The media has already begun waving a red flag as statistics reveal increasing cases of diabetes and heart disease plaguing countries that traditionally had neglible numbers of their populations suffering from such ailments; most fingers point to a change in diet as the primary culprit. One such article from the NY Times concerning the rise of diabetes among the middle and upper class in India can be read here. Only time will tell how this latest exchange of food plays out in our global society.

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