KFC opened their first restaurant in Beijing, China in 1987.  Beijing residents were so excited to finally taste a bit of American cuisine. At this point, foreign brands, like KFC, were still a novelty after the heavy restrictions of the Mao Tse-tung era. When the Chinese looked at the brand new, three-story KFC restaurant, they saw modernity and quality.

Around that time, people living in China earned around 100 yuan ($15 USD in today's money) per month.  This made dining at KFC a luxury. Most would go to KFC only for special occasions, such as a celebratory meal. A hamburger would run you 6-yuan and a fried chicken meal would cost 2.5-yuan. Since then, KFC has rapidly expanded to over 5,000 outlets and is still growing.

Although KFC is the biggest fast-food brand in China, other companies like Taco Bell, McDonald's, and Pizza Hut have also jumped on this foreign market. China's fast-food businesses generate $125 billion annually. Now, home-grown fast-food companies are popping up all around China like Dicos Fried Chicken. They are currently operating with 2,000 outlets.

Although these restaurants bring excitement and western food to China, they're starting to notice the negative impact. Eating fast-food has shown to increase your risk of diabetes and other non-communicable diseases. The younger generations are starting to make healthier choices when it comes to their diets, which seems to be decreasing the popularity of these fast-food joints. In October of last year, the University of Hong Kong published the study Healthy High Density Cities Lab which showed that people who live close to fast-food outlets have higher rates of Type 2 diabetes.

“We know it is unhealthy food, we know it adds calories, we know from other countries eating food that is disproportionately high in fats and salts is linked to obesity and hypertension,” said Barry Popkin, professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina. Popkin has dedicated much of his career to public health and nutrition while working with the Chinese government.

Coca-Cola sparked controversy recently for lobbying Beijing's health ministries asking for tax cuts and immunity to regulations like soda taxes. “China is so big I think most Western [fast food] brands want a foothold there. Many of their CEOs have said this publicly and noted how important China is to their bottom lines. This has been part of the globalization project and has happened relatively quickly,” said Mia McDonald, executive director of Brighter Green, a public policy organization.

The Chinese just aren't eating as healthy as they once did. Nutrition experts say rapid urbanization is to blame. “There is an allure around these brands because they are from the West and represent something very clean and modern — something that was previously inaccessible when lives were more rural,” said Judy Bankman, a consultant and co-author of the Brighter Green report “Chronic Disease, Changing Diets and Sustainability.”

Because they're eating processed meats and other foods that are very high in salt and sugar, the country is experiencing a dramatic increase in chronic illness. Popkin coined the term "nutrition transition", which refers to developing countries transitioning from tradition diets full of fiber and cereal to western diets high in fat, sugar, and animal-based products. China is currently in a nutrition transition. “It is happening in all of Asia, but China is the fastest because its income is growing the fastest and the government is really pushing consumption,” he said.

According to the medical journal, The Lancet, and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Since 2014, China has had the highest number of obese adults
  • 30% of adults in China are overweight
  • 12% of adults in China are obese
  • China has more than 100 million people suffering from diabetes
  • Children in China aged 12-14 are four times more likely to develop diabetes than American teenagers

Popkin worries that if China doesn't start to make changes and regulations, the results could be devastating. “Adult mortality will start to increase and offset the declines in mortality ... from cutting infectious diseases and undernutrition. [People in China] are slowly moving to a point where we are predicting that mortality and disability will go up. ... It is a serious issue that health professionals talk about but the government is not acting on,” Popkin said.

Although the fast-food industry is still growing, experts predict that it will only grow 2% in 2019, which is the slowest growth within the overall food service industry. It is also the slowest increase since 2016.

Source: Bloomberg

Not only that, but in more affluent cities, like Shanghai and Beijing, many organic restaurants, cafes, and farmers markets are opening up near hip shopping centers. Cecilia Zhou, chief project officer at the Good Food Fund, an organization based in Beijing that promotes nutritional health, said that the demand for healthful food is increasing. Although the national health of China has been suffering due to the influence of western food, there are some younger people, like Zhou, who are promoting a different lifestyle. “They care more about the environment and food ethics. That’s why vegan and or vegetarian lifestyles are becoming more popular among the younger generation,” she said.

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