3 Surprises (Out of Millions) About What the World Eats

For a fresh view of the world and its food, swipe and click through a new interactive graphic.
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Butchers prepare cuts of pork at a wholesale market in Shanghai, China.


Looking for a way to celebrate World Food Day quietly, without leaving your desk and without busting your diet? Of course you are. Do you think great data, artfully presented, can be as stirring as great poetry?

Then check out What the World Eats, the interactive tour de force our graphics team has just put up on the National Geographic food hub.

It's a look at what and how much the world, and 22 countries in particular, have eaten every year from 1961 through 2011. But it's not a half-century-high stack of Excel spreadsheets. It's more like Angry Birds for data nerds. I just dived into it for an overly long while. Here are a few pearls I surfaced with.

The Chinese already eat more meat than Americans.

Measured in calories, that is. Americans still consume more meat by weight, around 13.5 ounces (381 grams) to nine ounces (254 grams) for the Chinese. But the Chinese eat more meat calories. The reason: They eat more pork than we do—and it's extremely fatty pork. They like it that way.

As China has developed over the past century, its consumption has soared. Beef consumption has been growing lately, but not very fast—it's only around half an ounce per capita per day. The Chinese get two-thirds of their meat calories not just from pork, but specifically from pork fat. (You have to dive a little further into the FAO's vaults for that tidbit.)

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A chef serves up a plate of fried haddock and pommes frites at Republic in Manchester, New Hampshire.


Americans remain world sugar champions—but it's our consumption of vegetable oil that has really ballooned.

Between 1961 and 2011, American daily calorie consumption increased from 2,882 to 3,641. We don't actually eat all that—as Elizabeth Royte reported here a few days ago, we waste close to a third of those calories. And we've actually dropped nearly 200 calories from our diet since 2005. (After we defeated Saddam and before the financial crisis, it seems, we were really pigging out.) Still, a 26 percent increase since 1961 is huge. It just might have something to do with the American obesity epidemic.

But if you think that epidemic is all due to Big Gulps and other sugar bombs, think again. Only 54 of the 759 calories we added since 1961 came from sugar and other sweeteners; we increased our consumption of them only around 10 percent. But we added 425 calories worth of vegetable oil to our daily diet. And the oil in our deep-fat fryers is not even included in that figure.

Are salad bars the source of our obesity? Well, probably not. More data diving is needed to figure that out.

The world produces a lot of food.

OK, that's not so surprising. But the numbers are instructive.

In the last half century, food availability has increased worldwide even more than it has in the U.S., by nearly 31 percent. It's now at 2,870 calories. Japan, a rich country, gets by with only 2,717 calories.

As population booms and climate changes, producing enough food to feed the world will become challenging. But the problem today, as these numbers indicate, is not one of production. It's one of distribution and waste.

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