A study on a trade deal between the U.S. and smaller, developing countries in Central America and the Caribbean – the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) – highlights how free trade agreements impact diet and health

The study analyzes the availability of non-nutritious food in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic in the years after the CAFTA-DR was signed between those countries and the U.S., going into effect in 2006.

“Our main finding is that the trade agreement is associated with the importation of much less healthy food. This includes industrial sweeteners, edible oils high in saturated fats, and processed foods,” the University of Buffalo news center reports.

“We’re trying to think about the health effects of trade agreements,” says Marion Werner, associate professor of geography University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences. “The U.S. is exporting ever-more processed foods, as well as meat, to the region, while making it harder for farmers there to supply healthy foods for the local market. This situation has an impact on the health of Central Americans, especially low-income folks, as an unhealthy diet can lead to higher rates of obesity and overweight populations.”

Frozen potatoes offer one example of the dynamics at play. As Werner and her co-authors write in the paper, “We take frozen potatoes as a proxy for increasing penetration of processed vegetables in local diets because of the product’s near exclusive use for french fries in the hotel and restaurant sectors, especially fast food chains.”

CAFTA-DR eliminated tariffs on frozen potatoes, and with the agreement in place, the Dominican Republic and Central American signatories saw sharp increases in imports of that food, the study finds. From 2006-16, frozen potato exports to those countries rose by 76%, with U.S. exports growing rapidly, according to the research.