How bad is ultra-processed food for the planet?
In March this year, our Head of Policy on Food and Health, Rob Percival, participated in a multi-national workshop bringing together experts to build a systems model of the environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods across the food system.
Run by academics at The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and Deakin University, both in Australia, this work resulted in the publication last month of an impressive paper: “A conceptual framework for understanding the environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods and implications for sustainable food systems”.
The paper’s authors reviewed 52 studies reporting on the environmental impact of ultra-processed foods or “UPFs”, concluding that the production of their ingredients, their manufacture and distribution is responsible for significant negative impacts on natural resources and ecosystems. Here is a summary of what we learned.
UPFs pose risks to health and the environment
Ultra-processed foods are food substances modified by industrial and chemical processes into familiar products ranging from mass-produced bread, to ready meals, biscuits, cakes and drinks. They are defined by the NOVA system, which assigns food products to a group according to how much processing they have been through. Our Ultra-Processed Planet report, launched in 2021 at a UN Food Systems Summit Webinar, highlights the risks they pose both to human health and the environment.
UPF production relies on cheap, mass-produced ingredients, intensive processing technologies and plastic packaging, which don't degrade in landfill or the natural environment if thrown away as litter.
The authors of last month’s paper found that UPFs accounted for
- 17-39% of total diet-related energy use
- 36-45% of total diet-related biodiversity loss
- Up to a third of total diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, land use and food waste
- Up to a quarter of total diet-related water-use by adults in a number of high-income countries.
UPF production also contributes to land degradation, the use of pesticides and packaging and “eutrophication”, an excess of nutrient run-off from agricultural land into water bodies, killing lake and river life.
UPF production has led to the destruction of ecosystems
Among the commodity ingredients commonly used in the manufacture of ultra-processed foods are palm, soya, wheat, maize, milk, eggs, and meat. The ecological impacts of soya and palm production are well documented. Wild habitats have been destroyed as land has been converted, putting iconic species such as the jaguar and orangutan at risk. More than 130,000 hectares of rainforest were cleared for palm in Indonesia between 2015 and 2018, and the Brazilian Cerrado has undergone widespread conversion to soya production. Soya production in Brazil provides feed for intensive chicken production around the world, including for the ultra-processed chicken products many of us consume. It is linked to other environmental harms such as pesticide poisoning.
One study reviewed by the authors of last month’s paper reported that the consumption of sweetened soda used 230,555 ha of land, 33.6 million kg of nitrogen fertilizer, 175,000 kg of Atrazine herbicide; 34 million kg of nitrogen fertilizer and contributed to 4.9 million metric tonnes of soil erosion.
UPFs contribute to climate change and plastic pollution
The review concluded that UPFs are much larger contributors to greenhouse gas emissions (and thus climate change) than other food groups, with foods like ‘processed meats’, burgers and pizza contributing the most to these emissions.
UPFs also contribute significantly to food waste, with a New Zealand study reporting “bakery, sugar and confectionery waste” as the second highest contributor to municipal food waste. Many of these products fall into the UPF category.
Packaging waste from UPFs was also thought to be significant compared to other food categories, as they are almost always packaged products. Packaging production is energy resource-heavy and packaging waste can have significant environmental impacts if it is not disposed of responsibly.
Policymakers need to regulate UPF production, availability and consumption
Interestingly, the authors found that high quality, low environmental impact diets tended to be low in discretionary foods and/or soft drinks, with discretionary meaning they are eaten by choice rather than necessary for a healthy diet. As UPFs are not a necessary component of diets, their environmental impacts are avoidable. In Australia, for example, discretionary foods make up one-third of diet-related energy, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water use.
The authors conclude that “minimising environmental impacts and prioritising the production of nutritious foods are essential qualities of a sustainable food system” and that “UFPs are potentially counterproductive to these objectives”. They call on policymakers to regulate the production, availability or consumption of UPFs.
Advice to avoid UPFs is becoming prevalent in countries around the world. Brazil, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, France, Israel, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay all encourage, via national dietary guidance, labelling or other mechanisms, limiting ultra-processed food intake among their citizens. The World Health Organisation and UNICEF both recognise the importance of addressing ultra-processed food consumption for ending childhood obesity.
The UK can curb its addiction to ultra-processed food.
The UK is one of the highest consumers of ultra-processed food with the products making up over half of our average weekly shopping baskets. We need our governments to take similar action to other countries, introducing a percentage reduction target for UPFs in the national diet, providing guidance for people on reducing UPF consumption and introducing UPF labelling on products so it’s clear to people what they are eating. We also need them to support a transition to agroecology and organic farming, which produce food without many of the chemical additives that are so prevalent in UPFs and rely on nature-friendly practices which help resolve our climate and nature crises.