Conserving planetary and human health is the most important policy challenge we face. Our food system should enable everyone to enjoy a healthy, secure diet without harming the planet.
But evidence now shows that there is one clear culprit blocking this from happening.
You may have noticed a media buzz around ‘ultra-processed food’ recently, prompted in part by the publication of two books - Henry Dimbleby’s ‘Ravenous’ and Dr Chris Van Tulleken’s ‘Ultra-Processed People’. Ultra-processed foods – or UPFs, as they’re known – are products manufactured using industrial processes and ingredients that wouldn’t be found in a household kitchen. Many snack bars and fizzy drinks, commercial infant foods, various breakfast cereals, mass produced breads, and reconstituted meats fall into the category. They make up more than 50% of the average shopping basket in the UK.
Over recent years a growing body of evidence has linked UPF-rich diets to adverse health outcomes. Dozens of studies have found UPFs to be associated with an increased risk of weight gain and metabolic disease, even when known dietary risks are controlled for. In other words, it’s not just the salt, fat, or sugar in these products that makes them unhealthy. Researchers are still investigating why UPFs contribute to poor health, but governments worldwide, from France to Canada, Brazil and Israel, have begun to enact a policy response, convinced by the evidence. And now a new study has suggested there may be an additional environmental rationale for government action on this issue.
The study was authored by Kim Anastasiou of Deakin University in Australia, with a group of co-authors that include Christian Reynolds of the Centre for Food Policy at City University, London, and Rob Percival of the Soil Association. It seeks to conceptualise the environmental impacts of our ultra-processed food system. That means looking beyond individual products to the system as a whole, in an effort to understand the drivers of UPF production and the ecological consequences.
Quantitative evidence on the environmental impact of UPFs has been generated by a handful of studies, indicating that ultra-processed foods can significantly contribute to diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, land use, energy and water footprints. UPFs tend to be be associated with large-scale monoculture farming, high energy inputs for processing, lengthy transportation chains and excessive packaging. Many are ‘discretionary’ products, meaning they’re not needed in the diet, and their environmental cost could readily be avoided.
This new study maps out – through a series of ‘causal loop diagrams’, which look a bit like a bowl of spaghetti – how commercial and biological drivers position UPFs at the centre of our diets. The ecological consequences are then overlaid, showing how our food system has become ‘locked in’ to the mass manufacture of unhealthy foods, with various negative environmental externalities. The point of the paper is to help policy makers understand how health and sustainability intersect, and how the system might be shifted onto a nature-friendly footing.
The Conservative Government has already been making strides in this area. The new Environmental Land Management System will pay farmers for environmental outcomes, awarding ‘public money for public goods’. Ambitious climate and nature targets have been introduced, as have obesity policies, not least the Soft Drinks Industry Levy. The independent review into the food system, authored by Henry Dimbleby, has led to government action on food data transparency and public procurement.
But dietary change remains a contentious topic. The role of government policy in re-shaping how people choose to eat is an area of lively debate. This new study opens a new frontier in that debate, highlighting the potential co-benefits for both environment and health that might be accrued if UK diets were shifted away from ultra-processed foods. Government action in this space would need to be carefully defined but could lead to a reduced overseas footprint (via less palm oil consumed, for example), reduced reliance on agrochemicals in farming, less plastic waste, and reduced GHGs.
My constituency of Ynys Môn as Anglesey was known as Mam Cymru (‘Mother of Wales’) because its fertile fields formed the breadbasket for the north of Wales – and so quite rightly I am interested in supporting our farmers and my island’s role in our nation’s health. Tackling the overconsumption of UPFs would doubtlessly be good for national health, and it might also deliver important benefits for climate and nature. This paper suggests our ultra-processed food system should be of grave concern to any responsible government.
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