The cost of ultra-processed food

Posted: 29 March 2022 | | No comments yet

People around the world are eating more ultra-processed food, which is having a negative impact on the earth’s health as well as their own, according to new research.

Ultra Processed Food

A global diet that increasingly includes ultra-processed foods is having a negative impact on human and planetary health, according to a piece published in the journal BMJ Global Health.

Ultra-processed foods are wide ranging and include soft drinks, instant noodles, reconstituted meat products, pre-packaged meals, some breakfast cereals, biscuits and confectionery. They are made by assembling food substances and ‘cosmetic’ additives (notably flavours, colours and emulsifiers) through a series of industrial processes, for numerous reasons – one of which is to extend shelf life.

These products are the basis of a ‘globalised diet’ and are becoming dominant in the global food supply, with sales and consumption growing in all regions and almost all countries, according to the article in BMJ Global Health. Currently, their consumption is growing fastest in upper-middle and lower-middle income countries, the paper adds.

Consequently, dietary patterns worldwide are becoming increasingly more processed and less diverse, having an impact on agrobiodiversity – the variety and variability of animals, plants and microorganisms used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture – according to the nutrition experts from Brazil, the US and Australia who wrote the paper.

They said that the bad effects of ultra-processed foods on human health were “well documented, but there was still low awareness of their damaging impact on planetary health, and ultra-processed foods were missing from international development agendas”.

They warned that global agrobiodiversity was declining, especially the genetic diversity of plants used for human consumption.

More than 7,000 edible plant species are used for human food, but fewer than 200 species had significant production in 2014. As much as 90 percent 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, the study highlights.

The authors warned that such a decline in biological diversity in food systems is “disrupting and damaging biospheric processes and ecosystems that support reliable and sustainable food production, reducing diet diversity and creating a barrier to healthy, resilient and sustainable food systems”.

They added that the production of ultra-processed foods involved greater use of ingredients extracted from a handful of high-yielding plant species (such as maize, wheat, soy and oil seed crops), which meant that animal-sourced ingredients used in many ultra-processed foods were often derived from confined animals fed on the same crops.

Another issue of concern the authors pointed out was that ultra-processed food production used large quantities of land, water, energy, herbicides and fertilisers, causing environmental degradation from greenhouse gas emissions and accumulation of packaging waste.

“The very rapid rise of ultra-processed foods in human diets will continue to place pressure on the diversity of plant species available for human consumption…biodiversity conventions and climate change conferences need to highlight the destruction of agrobiodiversity caused by ultra-processed foods, and to agree on policies and actions designed to slow and reverse this disaster,” the authors concluded. 

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