Conceptualising the drivers of ultra-processed food production and consumption and their environmental impacts: A group model-building exercise (2023)

Kim Anastasiou, Phillip Baker, Gilly A. Hendrie, Michalis Hadjikakou, Sinead Boylan, Abhishek Chaudhary, Michael Clark, Fabrice A.J. DeClerck, Jessica Fanzo, Anthony Fardet, Fernanda Helena Marrocos Leite, Daniel Mason-D’Croz, Rob Percival, Christian Reynolds, Mark Lawrence. Conceptualising the drivers of ultra-processed food production and consumption and their environmental impacts: A group model-building exercise. Global Food Security, Volume 37, 2023, 100688, ISSN 2211-9124. (paywall)

Relevant to: 

Policy makers and dietitians interested in system-wide policy change.


This study aimed to develop and validate a conceptual model of the known and potential environmental impacts across ultra-processed food (UPF) systems.

Bottom line for nutrition practice: 

  • UPFs are associated with a wide range of environmental harms, driven by a profit-based, corporatized food system and enforced by product design and a food environment structured to encourage UPF consumption. Effectively reducing UPF production and consumption would require a suite of policies acting on the political economy, food environment and production system.


  • Using group model building we developed a series of causal loop diagrams identifying the environmental impacts of ultra-processed food (UPF) systems, and underlying system drivers, which was subsequently validated against the peer-reviewed literature.
  • The final conceptual model displays the commercial, biological and social drivers of the UPF system, and the impacts on environmental sub-systems including climate, land, water and waste. It displays complex interactions between various environmental impacts, demonstrating how changes to one component of the system could have flow-on effects on other components. Trade-offs and uncertainties are discussed.
  • The model has a wide range of applications including informing the design of quantitative analyses, identifying research gaps and potential policy trade-offs resulting from a reduction of ultra-processed food production and consumption.

Details of results: 

There are a range of mechanisms by which UPFs harm the environment. Impacts do not occur in isolation and many are cumulative, whereby one type of environmental damage acts to further degrade other forms of environmental damage. Impacts include climate change, land and soil degradation, water scarcity, biodiversity and agrobiodiversity loss, eutrophication, food loss and waste, plastic waste and air pollution.

Drivers of environmental degradation include a political economy system which acts to reinforce profits of UPF corporations, drive corporate political power and ultimately weaken protective food policies. Other drivers include product design, whereby UPFs are designed to be as palatable as possible and a food environment which enables access to inexpensive UPFs around the globe.

Ultimately a shift in production is required to meet the goals of healthy, sustainable and equitable food systems. However, policies which encourage a shift away from UPF production towards unprocessed, minimally processed and processed foods, need to account for trade-offs. Trade-offs relate to production efficiency, time pressures, food loss and waste, land use, cost and convenience (see Table 1).

Of additional interest: 

The model highlights research gaps which could be used by future researchers to determine UPF-related research studies. Furthermore, the model can be used to guide researchers on designing quantitative environmental impact assessments, as well as to provide a guide for interpreting quantitative findings in the context of complex and dynamic food systems.

Conflict of interest/ Funding:  

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency, commercial or not-for-profit sectors. KA was funded by a Deakin University Postgraduate Research Scholarship.

External relevant links:  

Ultra-processed foods should be central to global food systems dialogue and action on biodiversity (2022) – The contribution of ultra-processed foods to agrobiodiversity loss is significant, but so far has been overlooked in global food systems summits, biodiversity conventions and climate change conferences. Ultra-processed foods need to be given urgent and high priority in the agendas of such meetings, and policies and action agreed.

Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods by Pesco-Vegetarians, Vegetarians, and Vegans: Associations with Duration and Age at Diet Initiation (2020) – This study assessed the intake of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and unprocessed foods within a group of meat eaters and vegetarians (pesco-vegetarians, vegetarians, and vegans) in France.

Corresponding author: 

Kim Anastasiou, Ms –

View/download the resource

Transparency | Diversity | Dynamism | Evidence-based |

Public HealthResearch
Policy ChangeResearch