The environmental impact of ultra-processed foods

There is a growing concern that UPFs are processed beyond what is necessary for food safety with adverse impact not only on human health, but also on the environment.

Consider environmental impact of UPFs on:

  • Water
  • Agriculture
  • Livestock
  • Energy
  • Transport

UPFs manufacturing and their distribution require considerable energy inputs and thus contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and other waste.

Most UPFs are fundamentally unsustainable products with high environmental footprint requiring finite environmental resources for their production. 

From farm to fork to waste

All stages of food production impact on the environment

Picture from One Blue Dot Eating patterns for health and environmental sustainability: A Reference Guide for Dietitians

UPF production can impact the environment through reliance on:

Deforestation, pesticides and fertilizer use 

Large-scale monoculture farming: the large demand for foods made from just a few crops reduces overall agro-biodiversity

Biodiversity loss 🡪 reduces the number of species available for cultivation, e.g. indigenous & traditional varieties

 The existence of large multinational supply chains results in transport, waste and packaging-related environmental degradation

FAO issues a warning:

‘‘of the 10,000 plant species that can be used as food for humans, only approximately 150 have been commercially cultivated, and only 4 (rice, wheat, maize, & potatoes) supply 50% of the world’s energy needs, with the latter being used for the massive production of starches, modified starches, and sugar syrups used in UPFs.’’

  • Animal-based UPFs are linked to intensive livestock, which is reported to be linked to loss of animal biodiversity, hence UPF massive production is also related to loss of animal biodiversity 
  • Estimated that UPFs accounted for: 

36-45% of total diet-related biodiversity loss

17-39% of total diet-related energy use

up to one-third of total diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, land use and food waste

up to one-quarter of total diet-related water-use among adults in a range of high-income countries