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01.12.2018 | Research | Ausgabe 1/2018 Open Access

Globalization and Health 1/2018

The effect of sugar and processed food imports on the prevalence of overweight and obesity in 172 countries

Globalization and Health > Ausgabe 1/2018
Tracy Kuo Lin, Yasmin Teymourian, Maitri Shila Tursini
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Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (https://​doi.​org/​10.​1186/​s12992-018-0344-y) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.



Studies find that economic, political, and social globalization – as well as trade liberalization specifically – influence the prevalence of overweight and obesity in countries through increasing the availability and affordability of unhealthful food. However, what are the mechanisms that connect globalization, trade liberalization, and rising average body mass index (BMI)? We suggest that the various sub-components of globalization interact, leading individuals in countries that experience higher levels of globalization to prefer, import, and consume more imported sugar and processed food products than individuals in countries that experience lower levels of globalization.


This study codes the amount of sugar and processed food imports in 172 countries from 1995 to 2010 using the United Nations Comtrade dataset. We employ country-specific fixed effects (FE) models, with robust standard errors, to examine the relationship between sugar and processed foods imports, globalization, and average BMI. To highlight further the relationship between the sugar and processed food import and average BMI, we employ a synthetic control method to calculate a counterfactual average BMI in Fiji.


We find that sugar and processed food imports are part of the explanation to increasing average BMI in countries; after controlling for globalization and general imports and exports, sugar and processed food imports have a statistically and substantively significant effect in increasing average BMI. In the case of Fiji, the increased prevalence of obesity is associated with trade agreements and increased imports of sugar and processed food. The counterfactual estimates suggest that sugar and processed food imports are associated with a 0.5 increase in average BMI in Fiji.
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