Ultra-processed foods are destroying the planet, scientists warn

(ORDO NEWS) — Our world is facing a huge challenge: we need to create enough high-quality, varied and nutritious food to feed a growing population – and do it within the boundaries of our planet. This means a significant reduction in the environmental impact of the global food system.

There are over 7,000 types of edible plants that can be eaten. Today, however, 15 crops account for 90 percent of the world’s energy consumption, with more than half of the world’s population living on just three grains: rice, wheat and corn.

As our latest study notes, the rise of highly processed foods is likely playing a big role in this change. Thus, reducing the consumption and production of these foods offers a unique opportunity to improve both our health and the environmental sustainability of the food system.

Food system impact

Agriculture is one of the main drivers of environmental change. It accounts for one third of all greenhouse gas emissions and about 70 percent of fresh water use. It also uses 38 percent of the world’s land and is the largest driver of biodiversity loss.

Although studies have shown that Western diets containing excessive calories and animal products have a significant environmental impact, there are also environmental concerns associated with over-processed foods.

The impact of these foods on human health is well documented, but the environmental impact has received less attention. This is surprising given that ultra-processed foods are the dominant food supply in high-income countries (and sales are growing rapidly in low- and middle-income countries).

Our latest research, led by colleagues in Brazil, suggests that an increasingly globalized diet high in ultra-processed foods is being driven by growing, producing and consuming “traditional” foods.

How to recognize ultra-processed foods

Super-processed foods are a group of foods defined as “compositions of ingredients, primarily exclusively for industrial use, that are obtained through a series of industrial processes.”

They typically contain cosmetic additives and contain little or no whole foods. You can think of them as products that you would be hard pressed to create in your own kitchen. Examples include confectionery, soft drinks, chips, ready meals, and restaurant fast food.

In contrast, “traditional” foods – such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, canned legumes, dairy and meats – are minimally processed or made using traditional processing methods.

With traditional processing, methods such as fermentation, canning and bottling are key to food safety and global food security. Ultra-processed foods, however, are processed beyond what is necessary to ensure food safety.

Australians have a particularly high consumption of ultra-processed foods. These foods account for 39 per cent of the total energy consumption of Australian adults. This is more than in Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico and Spain, but less than in the US, where they account for 57.9 percent of the energy consumed by adults.

According to an analysis by the Australian Health Survey 2011-12 (the most recent country data), the ultra-processed foods that provided the most dietary energy to Australians aged two years and over were prepared meals, fast food, pastries, scones and cakes, dry breakfasts, fruit drinks, iced tea and confectionery.

What is the impact on the environment?

Over-processed foods also rely on a small number of crop types, putting pressure on the environment in which these ingredients are grown.

Good examples are corn, wheat, soybeans and oilseeds (eg palm oil). These crops are chosen by food producers because they are cheap to produce and high yielding, which means they can be produced in large volumes.

In addition, the animal ingredients in ultra-processed foods come from animals that feed on these same crops.

The advent of convenient and cheap ultra-processed foods has replaced a wide range of minimally processed whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, meats and dairy products. This has led to a decrease in the quality of our food and a decrease in the diversity of food.

In Australia, the most commonly used ingredients in packaged food and drink in 2019 were sugar (40.7 percent), wheat flour (15.6 percent), vegetable oil (12.8 percent) and milk (11.0 percent).

Some of the ingredients used in highly processed foods, such as cocoa, sugar and some vegetable oils, are also strongly linked to biodiversity loss.

What can be done?

The environmental impact of highly processed foods can be avoided. These products are not only harmful, but also not necessary for human nutrition. Diets high in over-processed foods are associated with poor health, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and depression.

To counter this, food production resources around the world can be redirected to produce healthier, less processed foods. For example, throughout the world, a significant amount of grains such as wheat, corn and rice are ground into refined flour to produce refined breads, cakes, donuts and other baked goods.

They could be redirected to more nutritious foods like whole grain bread or pasta. This would help improve global food security, as well as provide greater protection from natural disasters and conflict in the main breadbaskets.

Other environmental resources can be saved by completely eliminating the use of some ingredients. For example, demand for palm oil (a common ingredient in ultra-fine products associated with deforestation in Southeast Asia) could be significantly reduced by consumer preference for healthier foods.

Reducing your consumption of highly processed foods is one way to reduce your environmental impact and improve your health at the same time.The Conversation


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