As it turns out, highly processed foods are destroying the planet

The world is facing a huge challenge: ultimately, society must create enough high-quality, varied and nutritious food to feed the planet’s growing population. This means a significant environmental impact on the global food system.

There are over 7,000 species of edible plants that can be consumed. Today, however, 15 crops account for 90 percent of the world’s energy use, with more than half of the world’s population relying on just three cereals: rice, wheat and corn.

The rise of highly processed foods is likely to play an important role in this ongoing change, a new study notes. Thus, reducing the consumption and production of these foods offers a unique opportunity to improve both our health and the environmental sustainability of the food system.

Impacts of food systems

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Agriculture is the main driver of environmental change. It is responsible for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions and about 70 percent of freshwater use. It also uses 38 percent of the world’s land and contributes more to biodiversity loss.

While studies have shown that Western diets that are high in calories and animal products tend to have a major environmental impact, there are also environmental concerns associated with highly processed foods.

The effects of these products on human health are well documented, but the environmental effects have received less attention. This is surprising given that highly processed foods are the dominant component of the food supply in high-income countries and their sales are growing rapidly in low- and middle-income countries.

How to recognize highly processed foods?

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Over-processed foods – this group of foods are foods and beverages that have undergone certain types of food processing and have been created exclusively by an industrial process. Such foods contain various chemical additives and may or may not contain whole foods. Examples include pastries, soft drinks, chips, ready meals and fast food in restaurants.

In contrast, traditional foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, canned legumes, dairy and meat products have been minimally processed or prepared by traditional processing methods.

While traditional processing, methods such as fermentation, canning and bottling are essential for food safety and global food safety. However, highly processed foods are processed beyond what is necessary for food safety.

For example, Australians have particularly high rates of consuming over-processed foods in the world. These foods account for 39 per cent of Australia’s total adult energy intake. This is higher than in Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico and Spain, but less than in the United States, where they represent 57.9 percent. nutritional energy of adults.

According to an Australian Health Survey 2011-12 analysis, the highly processed foods that contributed the most nutritional energy to Australians aged two and over included prepared meals, fast food, sweets, pastries and cakes, breakfast cereals, fruit drinks, ice cream, sweet tea and pastry barrel.

What are the consequences for the environment?

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Highly processed foods also depend on a small number of crop species, which burdens the environment in which these ingredients are grown.

Good examples are corn, wheat, soybeans and oilseeds (such as palm oil). These crops are chosen by food producers because they are cheap to produce and high yielding, which means that they can be produced in large volumes. In addition, the animal ingredients in highly processed foods come from animals based on these same feed crops.

The rise of convenient and inexpensive highly processed foods has replaced a wide range of poorly processed whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, cereals, legumes, meats and dairy products. This reduced both the quality of our diet and the variety of foods we eat.

In Australia, the most commonly used ingredients in packaged foods and beverages in 2019 were sugar (40.7%), wheat flour (15.6%), vegetable oil (12.8%) and milk (11, 0%).

Some ingredients used in highly processed foods, such as cocoa, sugar and some vegetable oils, are also closely linked to biodiversity loss.

What can be done?

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The environmental impact of overprocessed foods can be avoided. These products are not only harmful, but also not necessary for human nutrition. Diets rich in highly processed foods have been linked to poor health outcomes such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer and depression, to name a few.

To address this, food production resources around the world could be redirected to healthier, less processed foods. For example, around the world, significant quantities of grains such as wheat, corn, and rice are ground into refined flour to produce refined breads, cakes, donuts, and other pastries. They can be redirected to more nutritious foods such as whole wheat bread or pasta.

Other environmental resources could be conserved by completely avoiding the use of certain ingredients. For example, demand for palm oil, a common ingredient in highly processed foods and associated with deforestation in Southeast Asia, could be significantly reduced by shifting consumer preferences to healthier foods.

Reducing the consumption of over-processed foods is one way to reduce your environmental impact as well as improve your health.

Photo preview / Ron Lach /

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