Trade in processed food
Access to safe and nutritious food is essential for good health and is linked to Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 2: Zero Hunger and SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being. Recognizing the pivotal role of access to adequate, safe, and nutritious food in achieving these goals highlights the critical interconnectedness between food access, health, and international development objectives. (United Nations, 2023; World Health Organization, 2023; United Nations, 2015)
While a universally accepted definition of 'healthy foods' is lacking, it can be generally understood as foods which positively contribute to overall health and well-being. The World Health Organization (WHO) takes a holistic approach, emphasizing the importance of an overall healthy diet rather than focusing on individual foods. The WHO general dietary guidelines consider essential nutrient intake and are developed to be flexible and adapt to evolving scientific evidence, accommodating diverse dietary needs and cultural approaches.
To understand the complex environment around the question of health, food, and nutrient intake, the WHO paired with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to undertake a study on trade in healthy food. Initially, this project aimed to identify trade patterns in the import and export of “healthy” foods by economy by correlating food healthiness with the classification of commodities used to monitor international trade, i.e., the Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS). However, in the absence of a globally recognized classification for "healthy” or “nutritious foods," and in alignment with WHO's emphasis on overall diet, the approach was extended to also explore the utility of food processing classifications. This led to the development of a novel two-part approach, where HS categories are grouped into similar categories based on both processing and food groups.
The objective of the project is therefore to identify trends in global food trade, examining contributions to food markets and access at the economy level by level of processing and food group. Importantly, this work avoids inherently framing processing as detrimental. This acknowledges the challenge posed by the lack of a universal definition for 'healthy foods' and underscores the commitment to understanding imported/exported food dynamics without making sweeping judgments about the merits or drawbacks of food processing. Such conceptual work and debate are outside the scope of this technical paper and work at hand and are referred to here merely as providing background information to understand and support the approach taken in linking processing of food to international trade of these commodities.
Food processing categories
The approach adopted here abstains from categorizing foods and processes as 'healthy' or 'unhealthy.' Instead, it assigns a number to major food categories and a letter to broad processing groups, aligning with the original HS groupings and descriptions. This facilitates queries by food or processing category, or a combination of both, offering valuable insights into global food movements and market dynamics. The aim is not to imply increasing 'levels of processing' but to illustrate and understand the trade flow of food by varying level of processing, that is, by kinds of processing and ingredients. This experimental classification involves a mix of processing steps, avoiding a consistent trend of higher processing levels as categories ascend. Nevertheless, they are designed to offer sufficient level of detail for analysis of food items being traded, once linked to the HS. The classification of processed food categories is presented in table 1:
Table 1. Classification of processed food
|Raw: unprocessed*, fresh, chilled, frozen
|Minimally processed: cooked, steamed, or dried; crude oils
|Processed: added salt/pickled/brined; added sugar**; smoked
|Processed: fermentation*** / smoking (neither salted nor brined)
|Composite foods; Preparations/refined oils
|Ingredients: spices et al; products provisionally preserved but unsuitable for immediate consumption in that form; ingredients for brewing
|Precursors - seeds, trees etc. for sowing, fertilized eggs, livestock, bees
* Non-alcoholic beverages: will include non-SSBs (unsweetened water).
** Non-alcoholic beverages: will include SSBs; where salted and smoked, salted is ID as processing.
*** Alcoholic beverages.
For presentation purposes, the trade flows are presented according to aggregated food categories as in table 2.
Table 2. Aggregated food categories
|Vegetables, meals and flours thereof
|Cereals and grains, flours thereof
|Meat, insects (for human consumption)
|Shellfish, crustacea, other aquatic spp.
|Dairy and dairy products
|Oil seeds and oleaginous fruits, flours thereof
|Animal fats and oils
|Vegetable fats and oils (assumes nuts, seeds and plant origin)
|Sugars, jams and confectionery
|Cocoa and cocoa preparations
|Edible preparations and formulations, beyond scope of HS chapters of 1 - 17
|Other, Not Elsewhere Classifiable in the above categories *also allowing for future evolution of market or HS in response to technology
Trade matrix of processed food categories
In the trade matrix of processed food categories trade flows are observed by reporting and partner economy, but also provided for several pre-defined groups of economies. Underlying data for this trade matrix are from the UN Comtrade database. The resulting trade matrix will be available in UNCTADstat Data Centre and will provide trade by food category, detailed by food processing or, alternatively, trade by food processing, detailed by food category.
Documentation and publications
To understand the complex environment around the question of health, food, and nutrient intake, UNCTAD paired with WHO to undertake the study on trade in healthy food. This technical paper aims to quantify and elucidate trends in the imports and exports of whole or unprocessed foods and more processed alternatives.
The primary objective of this work is to augment available information by creating a global dataset of bilateral food trade flows, building on UNCTAD’s expertise in the field. It serves as a valuable policy tool for member States, by contributing to a comprehensive understanding of food markets and nutritional access and informing nutrition-related trade policies.
- United Nations (2023a). Sustainable Development Goals: the 17 goals. Available at https://sdgs.un.org/goals# (accessed 15 December 2023).
- United Nations (2015). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. No.A/RES/70/1. New York. (accessed 12 December 2023).
- World Health Organization (2023). Universal health coverage. Available at https://www.who.int/health-topics/universal-health-coverage (accessed 15 December 2023).
This page was created within the WHO – UNCTAD project Development of an Information System for Trade in Healthy Food in 2022-2023.