Producing ultra-processed foods (UPF) promotes greenhouse gas emissions, excessive energy use, leading to extensive land use, the study finds
Ultra-processed foods (UPF) are defined as industrial products produced from substances obtained from food or synthesised from other organic sources. They usually contain little or none of the primary food, are ready to eat or heat, and are high in additives, including fat, salt, or sugar.
However, our dietary patterns also produce an environmental impact. A recent report published in ScienceDirect said the increased consumption of UFP can not only influence human health, but also environmental sustainability.
The study explained that UPF production is a primary driver of environmental pressures. Each life cycle assessment (LCA) stage of UPF production contributes in a different way to the negative environmental impact, which is characterised by extensive monoculture crops, high energy demands for processing, a long transport chain and excessive packaging. The final LCA stages such as creating the final product and packaging were the greatest environmental impact contributors in UPF-rich diets.
Higher use of resources
The study assessed the impact of 2-year changes in UPF consumption by 5,879 participants from a Southern European population between the ages of 55–75 years, on greenhouse gas emissions and water, energy and land use.
The results revealed that participants with major reductions in their UPF consumption reduced their impact by −0.6 kg of CO2eq and −5.3 MJ of energy. However, water use was the only factor that increased as the percentage of UPF was reduced. This may be due to the fact that growing vegetables, fresh fruits and nuts needs a higher amount of water, explained the study.
Thus, the replacement of UPF by unprocessed and minimally processed foods may suppose increases in water use. These initial linear associations between UPF and water footprints are adjusted by total energy intake. After these adjustments, such associations no longer hold true, indicating that dietary contributions of UPF increase the use of water because of the indirect increment on energy intake.
The study also found that land-use impacts from UPF are mainly driven by processed meat products. The analysis found relatively low contributions to land use by meat-free UPF products when compared to processed meat products.
In another study, cited in this report, on UPF environmental impact in Brazil from 1987 to 2018, diet-related GHGs increased by 21%, diet-related water footprint increased by 22% and diet-related ecological footprint increased by 17%.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicated in a report that UPF consumption in Australia represented a third of the diet-related environmental effects corresponding to a 35% of water use, 39% of energy use, 33% of CO2eq and 35% of land use, which could double in GHGs per capita by 2050 if dietary trends continue as projected
Bad for health and the environment
The study referred to recent reviews warning that a higher consumption of UPFs is a leading cause for suffering non-communicable diseases and obesity. Increasing consumption of UPF, according to the study, was reported in both developed and developing countries, reducing overall diet quality and having detrimental health impact. UPF was also related to cancer prevalence, visceral fat deposition and dysregulation of the gut microbiota affecting cognitive health.
Different factors such as eating in fast-food restaurants, economic and social development of a region, food system industrialization, technological change and globalisation affect the increase of UPF consumption and deteriorating the diet both in developed and developing countries.
Consuming cereals, legumes, fruits and vegetables according to energy needs would be beneficial for people’s health and the environment. So, low consumption of ultra-processed foods may also contribute to environmental sustainability.
The study recommended that the processing level of the consumed food should be considered not only for nutritional advice on health but also for environmental protection. Additionally, policies such as taxation, marketing or subsidies would be beneficial for the climate-environment-related sustainability as well as health.