It’s nothing new that ultra-processed foods are bad for you. Their detrimental effects on human health are well documented.
However, the horrific environmental impact of such food products receives less public attention.
Awareness for the link between food and planetary health is confined to discussions about organic farming and animal agriculture. While these are important topics, they are both part of a larger issue: the globalized modern diet.
Further, ultra-processed foods still remain unmentioned by international (planetary) health development agendas. But this new study changes the game; Its findings show that ultra-processed foods don’t only undermine human, but also planetary health.
Understanding the Globalized Diet
First, let’s take a look at what the researchers call a ‘globalized diet’.
The global consumption of ‘natural’ foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, is drastically decreasing. To blame is the ever-growing availability and convenience of processed food products.
Don’t get me wrong; Not all processed foods are ‘bad’.
A majority of the foods we eat are processed, but to a differing extent. Minimally processed whole foods, such as pasta, dried grains and fruit, or roasted nuts (without added oil and salt), are not the problem. Ultra-processed foods are.
What exactly are ultra-processed foods you ask? Examples include instant noodles and soups, pre-packaged baked goods, chips, and candies.
In short, foods that fall under the ‘ultra-processed’ category share the following features. They:
- are branded products with a very long shelf-life,
- have a long ingredient list with various chemically synthesized additives,
- contain little to no whole foods,
- are convenient and ready-to-eat (or require very little preparation),
- stimulate quasi-addictive behaviors because of their high palatability and energy density.
Additionally, the scientific evidence “shows beyond reasonable doubt that increased consumption of ultra-processed foods is a major contributor to the pandemic of obesity and related diseases” (2). Their environmental impact is of an equivalently drastic magnitude.
Why are Ultra-Processed Foods Bad for the Environment?
Ultra-processed foods significantly contribute to a decrease in global agrobiodiversity ( i.e. “the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture” (3)).
With the rise of the ‘globalized diet’, the variety of foods people eat becomes smaller. Highly processed products play a significant role in this decrease.
The manufacturing of ultra-processed foods relies on just a few high-yielding plants. The most used ingredients include soy, wheat, corn, vegetable oil, milk, and sugar. In fact, 90% of humanity’s energy intake comes from just 15 crop plants, and more than four billion people rely on just three of them: rice, wheat, and maize (1).
A majority of these plants are produced via monoculture farming, a driving factor of decreasing agrobiodiversity and ecosystem-destruction (4).
Cheap, standardized ingredients used in ultra-processed foods crowd out the variety of natural, minimally processed products humans consumed before the industrialization of the food system. This negatively affects the cultivation and consumption of long established plant food sources, including rich varieties of grains, pulses, fruits, vegetables and other whole foods ( often resulting in their extinction!).
Additionally, ultra-processed foods cause eutrophication and environmental degradation. Not only does their production require large quantities of land, water, energy, herbicides and fertilizers, they also emit substantial amounts of greenhouse gases. Oh, and don’t forget the accumulated waste of the necessary plastic packaging!
Animal-Based Foods are Particularly Terrible for the Planet
From all types of ultra-processed foods, those containing animal products harm the environment the most.
The large-scale production of non-vegan ingredients, such as milk powder (vegans will relate to the ongoing struggle of finding products without milk powder!), requires industrialized animal agriculture (a.k.a. factory farms). Not only is this farming method a major source of environmental pollution, it also uses horrific practices devoid of any form of animal welfare.
Further, animal agriculture requires lots of pastureland and monocultures to produce livestock feed. This directly affects the production of other plant varieties, because the land used for farming animal feed cannot be used for other forms of agriculture.
Strengthening ‘Big Food’
Ultra-processed foods are the flagship products of ‘Big Food’.
As we established earlier, ultra-processed foods are usually branded. Transnational food corporations specialize on expanding the processed-food industry, to the detriment of the planet. Multinational companies, such as Nestlé, Danone, and Mondelez, contribute to deforestation, use monstrous amounts of freshwater, and produce hefty amounts of carbon emissions (5).
But the ever-increasing political and economic powers of Nestlé and co. are not only worrying regarding planetary health. Massive food corporations also score very poorly on the social responsibility front (6).
Reshaping the Global Food Agenda
Despite the horrific environmental impact of ultra-processed foods, international conventions on climate change and biodiversity haven’t caught on to the topic yet.
Fortunately, at least the awareness for the negative heath effects of processed foods is steadily increasing. The UN Food Systems Summit already identified animal-based foods and food products high in salt, sugar, and fat as worrisome (7). It does, however, fail to mention the role food processing plays in contributing to climate change.
But what can individuals do?
Bringing the topic of ultra-processed foods to the attention of policy makers is crucial to reshape the international dialogue on our globalized food system. But taking action can be much easier than that.
The unprecedented rates of biodiversity loss highlight the need for a rapid transition to dietary patterns that are rich in varieties of fresh, plant-based, and minimally processed foods. Incorporating more vegan meals is a fantastic, easy contribution everybody can make in an effort to combat climate change.
The change starts with you.
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