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Putting the cook back in the urban kitchen

Leading diabetes pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk interviews JUCCCE Chairperson Peggy Liu on rising problems of diabetes in urban China.

What’s cooking in the urban kitchen? Unfortunately in many city kitchens, the answer is either not much or something pre-made, easy and not always the healthiest.

Preparing meals at home can be challenging for the millions living in cities. Everything from long work days to cheap and convenient fast food options makes choosing to cook fresh and balanced meals difficult. But these dietary choices are also contributing to the rise of type 2 diabetes in cities around the world.

Cities were built on food

The production of food, growing crops and domesticating animals, provided the means for early civilization to settle and begin living in dense populations. These settlements that started appearing more than 10,000 years ago were the first step towards today’s cities, now home to half of the world’s population.

The rise of farming changed how people lived in significant ways. Fewer people needed to focus on producing food which gave rise to specialized tasks such as builders. Farming also resulted in less land needed to support higher numbers of people. After harvesting crops, food surpluses made it possible for societies to remain in one place and live off stored food throughout the year.

According to research on how early civilisations developed, the change from nomadic hunters and gatherers to settled, dense populations released a wave of technological and human advancements. And it all started with food.

Fast forward to the present and the role of food in city life has somewhat changed. According to Peggy Liu, one of the leading green voices in China, the rise of megacities like Shanghai and Tianjin have left a generation of people without daily access to small markets of farmers with fresh food. Today’s urban shopper is much more likely to go to supermarkets where premade and packaged foods, often high in salt and fat, are in abundance.

“The quick transition from rural to urban is disconnecting people from farm land, their food sources. All that is left is an urban concrete jungle,” says Peggy. “They do not know what an eggplant looks like before it becomes Yu Hsiang eggplant dish on their table.”

Fast food nation

The urban generation in China is the largest in the world. Over the next 35 years, 76% of China’s population is projected to move into urban centers. The current generation is already susceptible to the convenience of fast and packaged food. Peggy is concerned that the situation could get worse for future generations, especially if current trends continue.

“In 1990 there were no supermarkets in China,” says Peggy. “But in just over 20 years, China surpassed the US in supermarket revenue.”

The increase in packaged foods has added not only more calories to the Chinese diet, but also salt and industrial flavoring like MSG. The dietary transition, together with decreasing levels of physical activity, is thought to be a key contributor to the current prevalence of type 2 diabetes and other non-communicable diseases.

Combined, Tianjin and Shanghai have an estimated three million people living with type 2 diabetes. By 2040, this number could double if action is not taken.

One of the main challenges has its roots in food shortages that plagued China more than 50 years ago. For the generation over 65, the memory of hunger and scarce food resources is still fresh in their minds.

With the opening up of Chinese markets in the 1990s, things changed quickly, as one 68-year-old woman with type 2 diabetes attests to: “There was nothing good to eat in the past. I can remember that when I gave birth to my son, even the eggs were in ration. There was nothing to eat at that time, not like now, when we can get everything”.

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