Background: Attracted by their high economic growth rates, young and growing populations, and increasingly open markets, transnational food and beverage corporations (TFBCs) are targeting Asian markets with vigour. Simultaneously the consumption of ultra-processed foods high in fat, salt and glycaemic load is increasing in the region. Evidence demonstrates that TFBCs can leverage their market power to shape food systems in ways that alter the availability, price, nutritional quality, desirability and ultimately consumption of such foods. This paper describes recent changes in Asian food systems driven by TFBCs in the retail, manufacturing and food service sectors and considers the implications for population nutrition.
Method: Market data for each sector was sourced from Euromonitor International for four lower-middle income, three upper-middle income and five high-income Asian countries. Descriptive statistics were used to describe trends in ultra-processed food consumption (2000-2013), packaged food retail distribution channels (1999-2013), 'market transnationalization' defined as the market share held by TFBCs relative to domestic firms (2004-2013), and 'market concentration' defined as the market share and thus market power held by the four leading firms (2004-2013) in each market.
Results: Ultra-processed food sales has increased rapidly in most middle-income countries. Carbonated soft drinks was the leading product category, in which Coca-Cola and PepsiCo had a regional oligopoly. Supermarkets, hypermarkets and convenience stores were becoming increasingly dominant as distribution channels for packaged foods throughout the region. Market concentration was increasing in the grocery retail sector in all countries. Food service sales are increasing in all countries led by McDonalds and Yum! Brands. However, in all three sectors TFBCs face strong competition from Asian firms.
Conclusions: Overall, the findings suggest that market forces are likely to be significant but variable drivers of Asia's nutrition transition. The carbonated soft drink market is the most highly concentrated and likely to be most harmful to population nutrition. The grocery retail sector is, in terms of increasing market concentration and thus market power, likely to be the most important driver of ongoing food systems change and ultra-processed food sales in the region. Given it's rapid growth, the food service sector will also contribute significantly to ongoing dietary change.
Keywords: Asia; Food systems; Foreign investment; Market power; Nutrition transition; Processed foods; Supermarkets; Transnational food and beverage corporations.