Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies
Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies

Faculty Focus: Pilar Zazueta

Fri, December 15, 2017
Faculty Focus: Pilar Zazueta

In 2012, Mexico attained the dubious distinction of becoming the world’s number one consumer of soft drinks, passing previous first-place holder the United States. And although Mexico is no longer in first place (Argentina now claims that title), the increasing consumption of sugar and ultra-processed foods is the topic of a national conversation about diet and the rise of chronic diseases in the country. According to historian Pilar Zazueta, this conversation has been a long time coming.

Zazueta is lecturer and undergraduate faculty adviser at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. Last February, she brought her considerable expertise in food history to bear as co-organizer, along with Raj Patel, of the 2017 Lozano Long Conference, “Revoluciones Alimentarias” (Food Revolutions).

In her work on the history of food consumption in twentieth-century Mexico, Zazueta identifies key and contradictory forces that have contributed to the modernization of the Mexican diet. Last century, Mexicans underwent a nutritional transition from mostly vegetarian meals that were low in dairy and based on locally grown staples and grains, to the consumption of ultra-processed foods high in fat, sugar, and simple carbohydrates. Demographic expansion, urbanization, and growth in household incomes all contributed this shift in dietary habits, as did interaction between government, producers, and consumers.

Some of these changes were set in motion by the post-revolutionary governments of the PRI. “After the revolution,” says Zazueta, “the government saw itself as an engine of economic development. Diet was seen as an area in need of intervention.” The agrarian nature of the revolution prompted state attempts to balance rural interests with urban ones, incentivizing industrialization and promoting urban development. Such government policies favored the soft-drink industry, ushering in Coca-Cola franchises, whose bottling and distribution generated jobs and revenue. This also benefited the agrarian sector: sugar production increased to support the manufacture of soft drinks.

Reflecting current observations about the ills of the world’s food system, Zazueta’s research points to the paradox of scarcity and plenty. On the one hand, she investigates the effects of food insufficiency—the lack of food; on the other hand, she looks at the damaging effects of diets abundant in calories, fat, and sugar.

After the Mexican Revolution, the government promoted health and well-being of the population by investing in sanitation and health services, and by trying to improve people’s diets. Yet, according to Zazueta, “government investments in Mexico were never enough to keep up with demographic growth. In order to feed its citizens, the Mexican government imported food and sold it at subsidized prices, to the detriment of national producers, especially the most vulnerable ones.” Urban consumers were the main beneficiaries of these subsidies. By the 1960s–70s, hunger was no longer a problem in cities. Now, it was diseases associated with affluence and the sedentary lifestyle—obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

Meanwhile, also in the 1970s, medical publications began calling attention to the harm of sugar and ultra-processed foods. In 1976, Mexico’s Consumer Protection Agency began to actively educate the public about diet and nutrition. Yet these initiatives would lose steam a few years later, when Mexico was gripped by an economic crisis in 1982. Since then, says Zazueta, nongovernmental agencies have emerged as champions of consumer protection, especially after the year 2000. Despite negative reactions in the food industry, Zazueta regards NGO efforts as very successful: “their triumphs have included soda taxes and efforts to regulate the marketing of ultra-processed foods to children,” she says.

Zazueta is writing a book that traces the history of the nutritional policies of the Mexican state. She describes some of the factors that have led to their failure:

The government intervened on both the supply side, through investment in local agriculture and importing food, and the demand side, attempting to induce behavioral changes through education and public information campaigns. The food policies always fell short of their goals and were vulnerable to corrupt practices, but by the late 1970s became broad and reform oriented. After the oil crisis, Mexico underwent a process of economic restructuring, and by the 1990s the country did not have a comprehensive national food policy. Instead, the government built a patchwork of focalized antipoverty initiatives and individual family-based nutrition programs. Yet cohesive strategies to increase access to healthy food, like fruits and vegetables, are still largely lacking.

Zazueta’s book promises to be a fascinating contribution to understanding the history of food in Mexico, and how good intentions on the part of government were no match for economic reality. The global lessons and implications of the shifts in Mexicans’ diet and health are still unfolding.

Zazueta has taught at The University of Texas at Austin since fall 2013. She teaches the capstone seminar for Latin American studies majors and Politics of Food in Latin America. In addition to authoring articles and commentary in English and Spanish on food and health in Mexico, she is a frequent contributor to television reporting on US politics for Telemundo, and has authored op-eds on Mexican culture in Texas newspapers.

This story was originally published in Portal 2016–2017. Read the LLILAS Benson magazine online.

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