Ultra-processed foods are destroying our health and the planet

Highly processed foods – such as sweets, chips, snacks and soft drinks – form an increasing part of our diet. This is not only harmful to our health but also to the planet, write four Australian food scientists. Time to strictly cut back on ultra-processed foods.

Our world faces a huge challenge: We must create enough high-quality, diverse and healthy food to feed a growing population – and we must do so within the limits of our planet. This means a significant reduction in the environmental impact of the global food system.

There are more than seven thousand edible plant species. But today, 90 percent of global energy intake comes from just 15 types of crops. And more than half of the world’s population is dependent on just three grains: rice, wheat and maize.

The advent of ultra-processed foods is likely to play a major role in this change, our latest research shows. Reducing the consumption and production of these foods thus provides a huge opportunity to improve both our health and the sustainability of the food system.

Impact on our food system

Agriculture is a major cause of climate change and accounts for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. The sector is also responsible for about 70 percent of freshwater consumption, 38 percent of all land in the world, and is the leading cause of biodiversity loss.

While research has repeatedly shown that Western diets high in calories and animal products often have major environmental impacts, there are also several environmental issues associated with ultra-processed foods.

The effects of this diet on human health have been well described, but so far there has been little attention paid to the effects on the environment. Strange, in fact, considering that ultra-processed foods are a big part of the food supply in high-income countries – and sales are also rising rapidly in low- and middle-income countries.

Our latest research, led by colleagues in Brazil, shows that increasingly globalized diets high in ultra-processed foods are at the expense of growing, producing and consuming ‘traditional’ foods.

Recognize ultra-processed foods

The term “ultra-processed foods” refers to a group of foods defined as “prepared ingredients, usually for exclusive industrial use, which are the result of a series of industrial processes”.

They usually contain chemical additives and get, if any, whole foods. These are foods that one could make difficult in one’s own kitchen, such as sweets, sodas, chips, ready meals and fast food.

On the other hand, the “traditional” foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, canned legumes and dairy and meat products are minimally processed or made using traditional processing methods.

Traditional processing, such as fermentation, preservation and bottling, is the key to food security and global food security. However, ultra-processed foods are treated much more than necessary for food safety.

Australians consume a lot of ultra-processed foods. These foods account for 39 per cent of the total energy intake among Australian adults. That’s more than Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico and Spain – but less than the United States, where they account for 57.9 percent of adults’ energy intake.

Harmful environmental effects

Ultra-processed foods rely on a small number of crop species, which puts a lot of strain on the environment in which these ingredients are grown. Examples include corn, wheat, soy and oilseeds (such as palm oil). Food producers choose these crops because they are cheap to produce and have a high yield so that they can be produced in large quantities. In addition, the same crops are used as animal feed used for certain animal ingredients in ultra-processed foods.

The advent of practical and inexpensive ultra-processed foods has replaced a wide range of minimally processed whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, meats and dairy products. This has greatly reduced both the quality of our diet and the diversity of our food supply.

In Australia, sugar (40.7 per cent), wheat flour (15.6 per cent), vegetable oil (12.8 per cent) and milk (11.0 per cent) were the most commonly used ingredients in food and beverage stocks in 2019.

Certain ingredients used in ultra-processed foods, such as cocoa, sugar and some vegetable oils, are also strongly linked to loss of biodiversity.

What can we do about this?

The environmental impact of ultra-processed foods can be avoided because the products are unnecessary for the human diet. Diets high in ultra-processed foods have been linked to poor health outcomes, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer and depression.

To address this, food production resources around the world could be redirected to produce healthier, less processed foods. Worldwide, for example, significant amounts of grains such as wheat, corn and rice are ground into refined flours for the production of processed breads, cakes, donuts and other delicacies.

But they could also be used to produce more nutritious foods such as wholemeal bread or pasta. This will help increase global food security and provide a buffer against natural disasters and conflicts in major cereal production areas.

Other environmental resources can be saved by completely avoiding the use of certain ingredients. For example, the demand for palm oil (a common ingredient in ultra-processed foods and associated with deforestation in Southeast Asia) can be significantly reduced if consumers shift their preferences towards healthier foods.

So by reducing your own consumption of ultra-processed foods, you can reduce your CO2 footprint while significantly improving your health.

Kim Anastasiou is a research dietitian and PhD candidate, Mark Lawrence is a professor of public health and nutrition, Michalis Hadjikakou is a lecturer in Environmental Sustainability and Philip Baker is a researcher at the Institute of Physical Activity and Nutrition, all at Australia’s Deakin University.

This opinion piece originally appeared on IPS partner The Conversation.

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