The negative impact of ultra-processed foods on individual health is well-documented but the damaging environment impacts of these foods is more difficult to quantify.
Recent research conducted by Kim Anastasiou, Dr Priscila Machado and Professor Mark Lawrence from Deakin University sheds some light on this important issue. Below they discuss their finding that Brazilians eating the most ultra-processed foods had a diet water footprint 10 percent higher than those eating the least ultra-processed foods.
Kim Anastasiou, Priscila Machado and Mark Lawrence write:
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report highlights the growing climate crisis, now seen in our own backyard with the recent floods, droughts, and fires. Food production is a driver of climate change as well as a range of other environmental impacts, such as biodiversity loss, land degradation and water use. As a result, changing food choices is an opportunity for individuals and policy makers to reduce Australian’s environmental footprints.
The environmental impact of what we eat has been increasingly studied by researchers. Previous research has found that meat and dairy are responsible for the production of greenhouse gas emissions and subsequent messaging about sustainable diets has focused on these foods. However, sustainability goes beyond just greenhouse gas emissions, and encompasses a much wider range of impacts on the environment, such as use of water resources and biodiversity losses.
In addition, the role of ultra-processed foods on the environment is rarely considered. Considering ultra-processed foods’ environmental impact is important because these foods have no nutritional role to play in healthy diets. They are unnecessary foods which, if avoided, can result in better health and leave room for us to consume more wholefoods, such as fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes.
This means that the environmental resources that we use to create ultra-processed could be avoided or re-routed into food products that are necessary for healthy diets. So, reducing ultra-processed foods could provide a unique opportunity for improving the health of both people and the planet.
What are ultra-processed foods?
Healthy diets are comprised of a variety of foods in their natural or near-natural state including unprocessed or minimally processed foods (e.g. fruits, vegetables, plain dairy, nuts, seeds) and processed foods (e.g. bread and canned fruits, vegetables and legumes). They are the types of foods we could make in our own kitchen; the foods that our grandparents, or great-grandparents, were familiar with. They provide essential nutrients for balanced healthy diets and their food structure has not been greatly altered from their natural state.
These foods differ substantially from ultra-processed foods which are made from a range of industrially produced ingredients and require high-tech industrial processing equipment. These industrial processes break down the natural structures of foods and provide the opportunity for a range of flavour and texture enhancers to be added. As a result, these foods are often high in fat, salt, sugar, artificial colours, flavours and stabilisers and no longer provide the key properties of healthy foods. Examples include soft drinks (including artificially sweetened drinks), fast foods, ice-creams, confectionary, poultry or fish ‘nuggets’, pre-prepared meals and more.
Ultra-processed foods are dominant in diets globally, and their increased consumption is associated with several chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers. Despite the known health harms of these products, their consumption continues to increase globally. In Australia, ultra-processed foods are currently responsible for 42 percent of adult’s daily energy intake.
The environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods
For the first time, a study has quantified the environmental impact of consuming ultra-processed foods. Our research, focusing on Brazilian diets, found that the manufacture, distribution and disposal of ultra-processed foods are associated with negative impacts on water use. We assessed food intakes of 32,886 Brazilians aged 10 years and older.
We found that the diet water footprint increased by 10 percent from those who consumed the least ultra-processed foods to those who consumed the most. This is equivalent to an extra 370L of water per day, which is the same amount of water that would be wasted if your shower was left running for 47 minutes.
Other evidence indicates that ultra-processed foods may use significant energy and land in their preparation, as well as contributing to plastic packaging, pollution, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, as described in our recent article in The Conversation. The impacts from Australian diets are likely to be worse considering that Australians consume double the quantity of ultra-processed foods than Brazilians.
The environmental burden of ultra-processed foods in Australia
Previous studies have analysed the environmental impact of Australian diets and have found that discretionary foods (which are very similar to ultra-processed foods) are responsible for more than one-third of diet-related energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, water footprints, cropland biodiversity loss and pesticide toxicity footprints. As a result, reducing ultra-processed food preparation and consumption should be considered a priority for reducing the health and environmental burdens of the food system.
Our team will be continuing work in this space and mapping the food system to show the relationship between ultra-processed food production and the environment. This will make it easier for policymakers to understand the relationship between food production and the environment. It will also help researchers to appropriately capture all stages of the food system when they conduct quantitative analyses of diets. We will be also measuring these environmental impacts in Australia.
However, we don’t need to wait for more evidence to take action. You can take action today by eating fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and a small amount of meat and dairy (or alternatives), drinking water and avoiding ultra-processed foods. These dietary changes can reduce your risk of a range of chronic diseases, as well as your environmental footprint.
Kim Anastasiou is a PhD Candidate at IPAN, Deakin University and a Research Dietitian at the CSIRO, Australia’s National Science Agency. Her research is focused on understanding and improving the health and environmental impacts of the food system. Her PhD aims to describe and quantify the environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods. Kim is also an advocate for the role of young people in creating sustainable and healthy food systems and was a Youth Liaison for the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit.
Dr Machado is an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow at IPAN, Deakin University. She holds a PhD and a Masters in Public Health Nutrition from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Her research focuses on evaluation of sustainable healthy diets based on the degree of food processing, understanding the role of ultra-processed foods in the food system and human health, and on science and politics of food and nutrition policy-making.
Mark Lawrence is Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University. He has 37 years’ experience working as a practitioner and academic in food and nutrition policy at local, state, national and international levels. Mark’s research interests focus on healthy and sustainable diets and food systems.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of any agency with which they are associated.
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