Researcher tackling loss of healthy traditional diets in Morocco

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Morocco's food landscape has been undergoing a major shift: Obesity is on the rise while traditional, healthy food is becoming more scarce.

Penn State geography researcher Bronwen Powell wants to know what’s driving these trends. To do that, she and her team are on the ground in Morocco investigating how different foods end up in markets and how community members view those foods.

Powell Morocco Food Research

Morocco's food landscape has been undergoing a major shift: obesity is on the rise while traditional, healthy food is becoming more scarce. Penn State geography researcher Bronwen Powell wants to know what’s driving these trends. 

Moroccan food markets are vastly different from U.S. grocery stores. They more closely resemble farmer's markets because they are typically in open-air locations, but even this is not an apt comparison.

"In rural areas, people may ride a donkey to the nearest road, then catch a truck to the market," said Powell, assistant professor of geography. "If people are only traveling to rural markets, then what's in that market is what they are going to eat. Diets are very seasonal."

Many Moroccan citizens rely on markets to supplement food they grow on their own land. Often, Powell said, people make a weekly trip to purchase food. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes are considered traditional foods in Morocco, but demand for these has declined recently, as Powell has shown through recent research. Before joining the Penn State faculty in 2016, Powell lived in Morocco, where she has been studying traditional food systems for over a decade.

"Processed wheat flour is increasingly being used instead of whole wheat or barley flour to make bread, meat and other animal sources of protein are replacing legumes, and people are more and more favoring imported vegetables instead of traditional (wild) vegetables," Powell said.

Not having access to, or loss of cultural importance of, healthy traditional food options could have a significant impact on diets and could help explain the country's shifting health patterns. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, 35 percent of women in Morocco are estimated to have anemia, 57 percent of all Moroccans are overweight, 22 percent are obese and Type 2 diabetes is on the rise.

"Many of the traditional foods being lost from Moroccan diets, such as whole grains, especially barley, and fruits and vegetables, are also those associated with lowering the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes," said Powell.

Using funds from a Wilson Research Initiation Grant available to faculty in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Powell is continuing to collaborate with colleagues at Cadi Ayyad University to get to the root of the problem.

"I have a team of research assistants in Morocco who are collecting market survey data," she said. "They go every week to the markets to ask vendors where they got their food and trace food back to its source."

Powell hopes the results of her study will influence the development of policies geared toward improving well-being for Moroccan market-goers. She has considerable experience in this arena — she works with the Center for International Forestry Research and the United Nations (e.g. the Food and Agriculture Organization), to inform decision makers of what policies may or may not be effective at curbing malnutrition.

Powell also hopes to uncover information that will help shape policy to support healthy dietary decisions. Decision makers disagree about the relative benefits of on-farm production of diverse crops of foods, or if farmers should specialize and become more market integrated. Specializing in specific foods that are in high demand might provide more income for farmers, allowing them to purchase additional healthy foods to supplement gaps in their diets. But the markets may not always have the types of supplemental food farmers are looking for.

"Throughout much of the developing world, there isn't an infrastructure to ensure that highly perishable foods, such as fruits and vegetables and animal-source foods, can be transported to distant markets," Powell said. "So, in those contexts, those foods and nutritionally important foods may need to be produced locally. Moreover, when people go to the market, they may not always choose to purchase healthy foods, especially if there is heavy marketing for unhealthy foods."

There hasn't been much research in this area in Morocco, so Powell is hoping that her work can start the process of addressing health and nutrition concerns.

"With the results of this project, I hope that we can start to have better advice for agricultural extension agents and departments or ministries of agriculture and health, to inform them about how to best ensure that markets have a diversity of healthy foods available to people," she said.

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Last Updated July 24, 2018