For the first time, researchers have studied the environmental footprint of the consumption of ultra-processed food. Conducted in Brazil, the research suggests that consuming more of these foods over three decades has contributed to increasing diet-related greenhouse gas emissions by about 21%.
It's already widely known that meat and dairy production have a harmful impact on the planet. But, according to this study conducted by an Anglo-Brazilian research team, the consumption of ultra-processed foods (industrially produced bread, meat like chicken nuggets and hot dogs, sodas, cookies, frozen pizzas, etc.) could also have a significant impact on the environment.
Published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health , the research covers a 30-year period (from 1987 to 2018) and draws on nationally representative data to assess changes in the diet of people in Brazil, as well as the impact that eating ultra-processed foods could have on global warming.
Four distinct groups of foods were analyzed, based on their additive content and "processed" status (ranging from "unprocessed" to "ultra-processed"). The study authors observed that the consumption of minimally processed foods such as fruit and vegetables has tended to decrease over the years among Brazilians, in favor of ultra-processed foods.
These changes in consumers' diets, which saw them eating more food in the ultra-processed category, contributed to an increase in the diet-related ecological footprint. A press release on the research explains that the increasing environmental impact of ultra-processed foods has largely been "driven by an increase in consumption of ultra-processed meat, which at least doubled its contribution to daily environmental impacts per individual, reaching about 20% of total diet-related footprints over the 30-year timeframe." The researchers calculated that over the 30 years, these dietary changes were associated with "a 21 percent increased contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, 22 percent increased contribution to the nation's water footprint and 17 percent increased contribution to its ecological footprint."
"For our health and sustainability, ultra-processed foods are already a massive, and growing problem ... Our findings suggest that diet-related diseases and climate change share an underlying driver and therefore, should be addressed simultaneously," study co-author Christian Reynolds, senior lecturer at the Centre for Food Policy at City University of London, said in a statement.