Big Food is making a big headway in the developing world, highlighting the need for researchers and policymakers to examine how the food and beverage industry markets unhealthy products implicated in chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, a team of international researchers say.

A group of scientists led by David Stuckler from the University of Cambridge examined market data on processed food and soft drink sales for up to 80 countries between 1997 and 2010. Their results and analysis were published in PloS Medicine on Tuesday as part of the journal's Big Food series, which is examining the influence of the food and beverage industry on public health.

Low- and middle-income countries are accelerating their consumption of soda and processed foods at a pace that's faster than the historical increase of the same food products in high-income countries. The developing world is also set to match the First World's unhealthy commodity consumption rates within three decades, the authors say.

Companies like PepsiCo, Nestle and Danone have penetrated most developing companies at a rate equal to that of high-income countries, according to the paper.

Not all countries are alike, though. The researchers found that Mexico experienced a rapid rise in soft drink consumption after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement dramatically reduced barriers for trade with the United States. Venezuela -- which does not have a similar trade agreement with the U.S. -- has maintained steady soft drink consumption rates despite high levels of economic growth.

In fact, the researchers found that a free-trade agreement with the U.S. is associated with about a 63.4% higher level of soft drink consumption per capita for low- and middle-income countries.

And while many companies have pledged to eliminate trans fats and reduce salt, sugar and fat in foods sold in wealthy countries, these nutritional improvements are often not implemented in poorer markets, according to the paper.

There is a need to identify population-level social, economic and political interventions that could stem the rise of unhealthy commodity consumption, and overcome the political barriers to their implementation, as has been done for tobacco control, the authors wrote.

In an editorial earlier this month, the American Beverage Association criticized the PLoS Medicine editors for not providing the industry with a forum to air its side in the Big Food series.

This approach fails to acknowledge industry's real, collaborative efforts with key stakeholders in developing meaningful solutions to public health issues such as obesity, an approach recently recommended by the Institute of Medicine, as well as the World Health Organization, the ABA said in its editorial.

SOURCE: Stuckler et al. Manufacturing Epidemics: The Role of Global Producers in Increased Consumption of Unhealthy Commodities Including Processed Foods, Alcohol, and Tobacco. PLoS Med 9(6): e1001235.