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Ultra-processed foods driving environmental damage

The ability of countries to meet their climate change targets is at risk from growing consumption of ultra-processed foods.

A new first-of-its-kind 30-year study on the Brazilian diet published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal found increased consumption of ultra-processed foods, including sausages, margarines, sweets and soft drinks, was linked to worsened environmental impacts.

The University of Sheffield Institute for Sustainable Food used household budget survey data taken from urban Brazilian households between 1987 and 2018 to help demonstrate how changes in a nation’s diet can affect its environmental impact, including its contribution to climate change.

They found that during the past 30 years Brazil has undergone a nutrition transition similar to that experienced by the UK during the twentieth century, toward a diet higher in ultra-processed foods.

It is these products, which include reconstituted meat products, such as sausages, ready meals, margarines, sweets, soft drinks, and other foods which contain artificial additives like sweeteners and flavour, that researchers concluded have been the largest contributor to worsening impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, Brazil’s water footprint, and ecological footprint such as deforestation.

Although the negative health effects of high consumption of ultra-processed foods have been well-known for over a decade – including links with obesity, coronary heart disease, diabetes and cancer – researchers said there had previously been very little understanding of the effects of the nutrition transition on the planet.

They warned that as the economies of more countries grow, so will the trend in the consumption of ultra-processed foods which could adversely affect countries’ ability to meet their climate change targets.

“Our findings suggest that diet-related diseases and climate change share an underlying driver and therefore should be addressed simultaneously,” said Dr Christian Reynolds, visiting fellow at the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food and senior lecturer at the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London.

Reynolds suggested that policy makers should consider a number of measures to counter the growth of ultra-processed foods including taxes or subsidies, regulation on advertising, and displaying the environmental impact on food and menu labelling.