Imported Foods, Obesity, and Health in French Polynesia

A combination of industrialization, globalization, and urbanization in the past decades have allowed for a world where every kind of food can be shipped all around the world. New advances in technology have opened the doors for processed, cheap, and mass-produced food to reach every end of the earth, including the once isolated islands of French Polynesia. Analyzing the history, diet changes, and current eating habits in these small islands can help magnify the undeniable health issues following processed foods as they make their way around the globe.

“Fat is beautiful.” These three words represent the role that weight has played in the physical appearance of Polynesian people since ancient times. A large body is often seen as a sign of beauty and attractiveness. So called “fattening rituals,” consisting of large celebratory feasts, were meant to enhance a person’s sexual attractiveness and to become lustful and high spirited (Pollock, 1995). Many changes have occurred on the islands over the years causing changes in diet, cultural practices and daily activities, however, obesity is still seen as a common and embraced attribute in these islands. Although fattening rituals were given up centuries ago, French Polynesia still stands as the third most overweight and the sixth most obese country on the earth. Obesity is defined as having a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 30 or more and overweight is defined as having a BMI at least 25 or above (The Fat Chart, 1995).  With an obesity prevalence of 40.9% and overweight prevalence of 73.7%, some may wonder, what are the health implications of this lifestyle?

In ancient French Polynesia, there were no grocery stores or convenience markets. All of the food that was consumed on the island came from local farms, fisheries, or backyard gardens. Communities would come together to harvest fish, fruits, vegetables, and other produce fit for the agricultural conditions of each island. In a system based on reciprocity, the food would be shared among families and tribes to sustain the island populations as a whole (Hughes, 2002). Islanders living this lifestyle were generally healthy and the country as a whole had very low rates of lifestyle diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease (Coyne, 2000). In the late eighteenth century with the arrival of Europeans, newly introduced diseases spread through the people, wiping out massive amounts of the local population.  One result of this population loss was a movement of islanders from the hills to the coastal plane.  Over time, colonization and missionization brought people into villages.  Once the French arrived to test nuclear bombs in the 1960s, the isolation that brought these islanders together was abruptly put to an end, resulting in urbanization and a new era of health issues. Year after year, the islands of French Polynesia became more and more globalized.

One of the biggest changes resulting from globalization from ancient times to the present is seen in the food industry. As soon as outsiders came to the islands, they demanded foods from their native westernized cultures that were not found on the island. This began the progressive importation of foods from all over the world. The islanders went from having a strict diet of only local foods, to now eating mostly imported, processed foods from distant countries. Fish, fruits, and vegetables are still part of their diets, however processed chicken, canned meats, and other foods are consumed by most on a daily basis. Making up the majority of the food on the islands, the island people are not completely dependent on imported foods. Due to the decreases in farming and increased urbanization, the islands can no longer sustain their daily food needs without foreign imports.

A series of statistics found from an organization called Food Secure Pacific sheds light on the changes in food habits seen in the last few decades. From 1965 to year 2000, the percentage of chicken imported rose from 14.6% to 44.4% of total food imported to the islands. Due to its high demand, chicken is the biggest single food import in most of the islands. From 1963 to 2000 the total grams of fat available per person per day almost doubled, rising from 62.1 grams to 112.7 grams. During this same time period, starchy root vegetables available per person per day decreased from 312.9 grams to 164.8 grams, whereas meat and offal increased from 88.2 grams to 274.3 grams. Available milk per person per day increased drastically from 89.5 grams to 242.3 grams (Hughes, 2002). These statistics display a rapid change in the daily diets of French Polynesians throughout these years. The most drastic changes were seen in the increases in milk, meat, and chicken and decreases in root vegetables available. Although there were many extreme changes in available food, the amount of some vegetables and most fruits has remained relatively constant over the years. This shows that a lack of healthy fruits and vegetables is not so much the problem as the introduction of processed food to their diets.

Due to this dramatic change from natural local products to processed food high in calories and saturated fats, French Polynesians have been suffering from a form of malnourishment, not from starvation but from eating unhealthy and unbalanced amounts and types of food. The amounts of fresh, local fruits and vegetables available to islanders are being outnumbered as the amounts of processed imported foods continue to increase. These increases in imported foods in the daily diet have many adverse effects on the islanders. In the Pacific islands as a whole, 40% of the total population is diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or hypertension (Parry, 2012). In most cases, these three non-communicable diseases, also known as lifestyle diseases, are directly related to obesity, poor diet and lack of physical exercise (Coyne, 2000).

Surveying stores and products on each island showed just how dependant the islands are on the food imports. The majority of the products in the stores come from France, the United States, New Zealand, and China. On the smaller islands, with less frequent food shipments than Tahiti, canned goods dominate the store shelves. Canned foods like spam, vegetables, chicken, corned beef, fruit, and meals are stacked high on the shelves of every store visited in French Polynesia. Local fresh chicken and beef are rarely found throughout the islands. The foods in the stores are so easily accessible and have such high fat content that makes them irresistibly destructive to the local people. 

On the islands of Tahiti, Fakarava, and Nuka Hiva, the health impacts of imported foods are just beginning to be recognized and addressed. In Tahiti, the most industrialized island, are recent ads and campaigns promoting consumption of locally grown foods through the Papeete market.  The Fakaravan Department of Agriculture set up a coconut farm where locals are taught how to farm their own backyard coconuts trees. The coconut farm also sells an abundance of freshly grown fruits and vegetables to sustain a majority of the population of the small island. In Nuka Hiva, a recently started organization manages the production and distribution of local foods all around the island. The price of local food on this island is being driven down to encourage people to buy from the local market instead of the imported foods in grocery stores. The goal of the co-op in future years is to help to produce enough food on the island to become significantly less dependant on foreign goods (Natteririea, 2013). These small initiatives are a big step towards solving the diet and health problems on the islands.

On a bigger scale, the World Health Organization and United Nations has linked up with an organization called Pacific Food Summit in order to make a better future for the Pacific Islanders as a whole. Doctor Temo K Waqanivalu, an officer for nutrition and physical activity at the World Health Organization stated, “These diseases are finally receiving the attention they rightfully deserve at a regional and global level, with the Pacific Food Summit and more recently the United Nations General Assembly resolution on the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases” (Parry, 2010).

There will never again be a time where islands are completely independent from imported foods but there are many ways to help improve the current destructive diets of the French Polynesian islanders. On a larger scale, looking at the United States or any other country in the world, there will never be a grocery store without foods from distant countries. Globalization has forever changed the food that people eat and have access to in their daily lives and there is no turning back to the times before industrialization and global transportation networks. The question that really has to be asked everywhere is how to keep a healthy diet amongst all the inexpensive, processed foods that are so easily accessible. Global and local changes are needed in order to control and regulate these foods as well as inform the public of the dangers of processed foods.

Jessica Reade, Roger Williams University
2013

Works Cited:
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Natteririea, Josaline Pirio Tua, local Marquesan and president of Local Food Co-op. 18 February

How to cite this page: 
Jessica Reade. “Imported Foods, Obesity, and Health in French Polynesia,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.  2013. Web. [Date accessed]  <html>