The National Good Food Plan must include action on ultra-processed foods

The National Good Food Plan must include action on ultra-processed foods

Ultra-processed food is a hot topic!

Ultra-processed food is getting a lot of attention. Whether it’s coverage of Chris van Tulleken’s Ultra-Processed People book, industry bodies sowing confusion over baked beans or concerns about their environmental impact, the Soil Association is not alone in calling for action to address them.

In an open letter to Steve Barclay, the UK government’s Secretary of State for Health, this month, we wrote on behalf of the nearly 14,000 people who signed our petition asking him to remove the government’s Good Choice badge from ultra-processed products and support people to eat less of them. Thanks to everyone who signed our petition and helped to raise the profile of the impacts of the dominance of these foods in our diets.

Questions have been asked in parliament

Almost 2,000 people wrote to their Westminster MP about our campaign and this has resulted in questions being asked in parliament, showing firm support for action to address these foods.

Following the launch of our Taking the Biscuit campaign, UK Health Minister Neil O’Brien announced that the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), on whose recommendations the UK Government bases its dietary guidelines, is carrying out a scoping review of the evidence on processed foods and health and aims to publish its initial assessment in the summer of 2023. With the growing evidence that diets dominated by ultra-processed food are detrimental to our health and their over-consumption linked to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, poor liver health, depression and all-cause mortality, we hope the Committee will recommend much-needed action to address ultra-processed food.

The Scottish Government must act too

Action is needed in Scotland, too, with over 50% of the UK shopping basket dominated by these foods. The Scottish Government should use the National Good Food Plan to take the following action on ultra-processed food:

  • Address the dominance of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) in our diets by promoting healthy and sustainable diets,
  • Recognise the harm caused by diets high in UPFs,
  • Set a target to reduce consumption of UPFs, as France has done,
  • Use national dietary guidance to encourage consumers to reduce consumption of UPFs and eat more minimally processed and natural food.

UPFs are bad for the environment too

A conceptual framework for understanding the environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods and implications for sustainable food systems, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production in 2022 concluded that UPFs account 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.

The intensive production of palm, soya, wheat, maize, milk, eggs and meat for these products has placed a growing burden on natural environments through land conversion, use of pesticides and fertilizers and soil erosion.

Our Head of Food Policy, Rob Percival, is a co-author of a paper newly published in Global Food Security on the environmental impacts of ultra-processed food, which concludes that “UPFs can significantly contribute to diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, land-use, energy and water-footprints” and “a reduction in UPF production and consumption could reduce environmental impacts from foods which are often superfluous to human needs”.

An overview of the health and environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods can be found in our Ultra-Processed Planet report, newly updated for 2023.

The food industry is powerful and influential

We know the food industry is incredibly powerful and we are deeply concerned about its influence on public health policy in the UK and elsewhere. Earlier this year, a series in the Lancet outlined how “four industries (tobacco, unhealthy food, fossil fuel, and alcohol) are responsible for at least a third of global deaths per year” and “their products and practices are having increasingly negative impacts on human and planetary health and equity”. The World Health Organization has raised similar concerns, concluding that “company choices in the production, price-setting and targeted marketing of products”, including “ultra-processed foods, tobacco, sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol lead to diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, as well as hypertension and obesity”.

It's really helpful to see so much debate and attention focused on this hugely important issue for health, biodiversity and climate and we thank you everyone who supported our campaign to bring it to the forefront of those with government responsibility to take action.