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What is ultra-processed food?

Ultra-processed food: bad for climate, nature and health

In our drift towards a diet based on edible food-like substances and away from real food, grown in the soil or reared in the fields, we risk losing the connection between soil, plants, animals and people, for the health of our food and our planet.

With growing public interest in how our diets are linked to the health of our planet, it was timely that this year’s annual Peter Melchett Memorial lecture (22nd October 2020) focussed on ultra-processed food. Bee Wilson, Food Writer and School Food Campaigner joined our Chief Executive Officer, Helen Browning and me to ask: what is ultra-processed food and why is it taking over our shopping baskets? Why does that matter for the climate and nature crises as well as our dietary health?

What are ultra-processed foods?

To quote Bee Wilson: “What characterises ultra-processed foods is that they are so altered that it can be hard to recognise the underlying ingredients. These are concoctions of concoctions, engineered from ingredients that are already highly refined, such as cheap vegetable oils, flours, whey proteins and sugars, which are then whipped up into something more appetising with the help of industrial additives such as emulsifiers.

Ultra-processed foods now account for more than half of all the calories eaten in the UK and US, and other countries are fast catching up. Ultra-processed foods are now simply part of the flavour of modern life. These foods are convenient, affordable, highly profitable, strongly flavoured, aggressively marketed – and on sale in supermarkets everywhere.”

You can find out more about how to identify ultra-processed foods in our new briefing.

Loaves of bread

 

Why does ultra-processed food matter for the climate and nature?

According to the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), several life-cycle assessment studies comparing GHG emissions from ultra-processed ready-made meals and home-made meals with similar ingredients, show that on balance the ready-made meals generate about 30-50% higher emissions than the home-made meals. Then there is the plastic waste associated with ultra-processed foods designed for long shelf life in globalised supply chains. It’s important to recognise that processing food can sometimes reduce food waste, but that is not an argument for ‘ultra-processing’.  

To better understand the impact of ultra-processed food on nature and the climate we need to look beyond life cycle comparisons of individual meals and see the impact on the farming system as a whole. 

Brazil’s ground-breaking dietary guidelines emphasise the intrinsic link between ultra-processed food and the outputs of intensive monoculture farming systems, which have driven so much biodiversity loss.

If shopping baskets continue to be filled with ultra-processed food, our farming system will remain fundamentally about supplying commodity crops to the global market, where only yield and price matter and nutritional diversity is lost.

80% of processed food is made from just 3 plants - soy, maize, wheat - and from meat. In the UK, farmers receive just 8% of the price of this food, compared to 92% for the processors, value-adders and the retailers. This leaves little room to invest back in the soil and in the ecology of their farms.

Countryside view over farm

 

A more balanced food system

Covid has shown us a different way, prompting a surge in demand for veg boxes, farm shops and nutritious foods from new and flexible local supply chains offering a fairer deal for citizens and producers.  

This is a question of balance. There is still room for more traditional processing that is far from ultra-processing, in that it is centred on real food and can enhance and preserve that food and cut food waste. We should also not turn our backs on global trade, as we should be growing things wherever they have the least impact on climate and nature.  

This is about our whole relationship with food and what we gain from experiencing that connection with each other and with the soil and with nature in growing, cooking and eating together as food citizens, rather than just being consumers of ultra-processed branded food products.  

Reducing ultra-processed food in public settings

When our former Policy Director, Peter Melchett, along with Lizzie Vann and Jeanette Orrey, founded Soil Association’s Food for Life programme, they put an ambitious 75% target for freshly prepared, unprocessed food at its heart where it remains today. This target is achieved by 10,000 schools and two million meals in public settings every day. Only with real food on our children’s plates can they make real connections with others and with nature through the growing and cooking and sharing of food.  

We can learn from our neighbours. Despite their much lower starting point of 14% ultra-processed food in shopping baskets, compared to our 51%, France has just set a national target to reduce ultra-processed food by 20% in the next 3 years. We plan to link arms with other food and health champions and organisations to campaign first to overcome food industry resistance and get this recognised as a public health problem, and secondly to secure national reduction targets in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England, with city-level targets possible as stepping stones along the way. That also means placing a priority on policies to make less processed food more normal and rebuild children’s connection with real food. 

Have a look at our new briefing on ultra-process food and sign up to our newsletter to hear more about our campaign launching in the coming months. England’s new National Food Strategy due in spring 2021 could be a crucial opportunity to re-set and restore balance to our shopping baskets. Together we can rebalance and reconnect with real food, and all the good it can bring for climate and nature and health.