A conceptual framework for understanding the environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods and implications for sustainable food systems (2022)

K. Anastasiou, P. Baker, M. Hadjikakou, G.A. Hendrie, M. Lawrence. A conceptual framework for understanding the environmental impacts of ultra-processed foods and implications for sustainable food systems. Journal of Cleaner Production. Volume 368, 2022, 133155, ISSN 0959-6526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2022.133155 (paywall).

Relevant to: 

Dietitians interested in understanding the environmental impacts of UPFs.

Question: 

Research aim: to determine the types of environmental impacts resulting from each stage of UPF production, and the magnitude of these impacts in the context of dietary consumption patterns

Bottom line for nutrition practice: 

  • The findings highlight that environmental degradation associated with UPFs is of significant concern due to the substantial resources used in the production and processing of such products, and also because UPFs are superfluous to basic human needs.

Abstract: 

  • Minimising environmental impacts and prioritising the production of nutritious foods are essential qualities of a sustainable food system. Ultra-processed foods (UFPs) are potentially counterproductive to these objectives.
  • This review aims to summarise the magnitude and types of environmental impacts resulting from each stage of the UPF supply chain and to develop a conceptual framework to display these impacts. It also aims to identify the terms used to describe UPFs in the sustainability literature, and the methods used to measure the associated environmental impacts.
  • A narrative review approach with a systematic search strategy was used. Fifty-two studies were included that either described or quantified the environmental impacts of UPFs.
  • This review found that UPFs are responsible for significant diet-related environmental impacts.
    • Included studies reported that UPFs accounted for between 17 and 39% of total diet-related energy use, 36–45% of total diet-related biodiversity loss, up to one-third of total diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, land use and food waste and up to one-quarter of total diet-related water-use among adults in a range of high-income countries.
    • These results varied depending on the scope of the term used to describe UPFs, stages of the lifecycle included in the analyses and country.
    • Studies also identified that UPF production and consumption has impacts on land degradation, herbicide use, eutrophication and packaging use, although these impacts were not quantified in relation to dietary contribution.
  • The findings highlight that environmental degradation associated with UPFs is of significant concern due to the substantial resources used in the production and processing of such products, and also because UPFs are superfluous to basic human needs.
  • The conceptual framework and findings presented can be used to inform food policy and dietary guideline development, as well as provide recommendations for future research.

Details of results: 

From a resource-use perspective, UPFs are not a necessary component of diets and therefore environmental impacts are avoidable. Environmental impacts from UPFs occur across the entire supply chain. These impacts range in magnitude, but research on Australian discretionary food consumption indicates that they are significant; approximately one-third of diet-related energy, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water use was driven by the production of discretionary foods in Australia.

UPFs reliance on low-cost, high-yield commodities is a driver of diet-related greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss, intensive processing technologies is a driver of diet-related energy use and reliance on packaging drives plastic pollution.

Meat-based UPFs appear to be significant drivers of UPF-related greenhouse gas emissions. Plant-based UPFs also contribute to greenhouse gas emissions but their impacts on biodiversity and deforestation are perhaps more concerning.

Of additional interest: 

The ways in which foods were classified in the original research articles influenced study findings. This highlights the importance of considering the most relevant food classification system, and the potential impacts of the classification on the findings. Specifically, some outcomes, such as greenhouse gas emissions and land use, appeared to be driven by whether or not studies included processed meats in their ‘unhealthy food’ category.None

Conflict of interest/ Funding:  

none

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, kim.anastasiou@adelaide.edu.au

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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2023.100688 (paywall)

Relevant to: 

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

Question: 

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.

Abstract: 

  • 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 – kim.anastasiou@adelaide.edu.au

Availability and Accessibility of Healthy and Unhealthy Foods in Neighborhood and their Association with Noncommunicable Diseases: A Scoping Review (2024)

Sachdeva B, Puri S, Aeri BT. Availability and accessibility of healthy and unhealthy foods in neighborhood and their association with noncommunicable diseases: A scoping review. Indian J Public Health 2024;68:95-105. DOI: 10.4103/ijph.ijph_436_23

Abstract

Worldwide, 7 million mortalities and 187.7 million morbidities have been associated with dietary risks. Poor diets emerge because of an obesogenic environment. However, clear evidence indicating an association between food environment and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) is inconclusive.

The present review was conducted to study the associations between the availability/accessibility of healthy/unhealthy foods and the risk of NCDs among adults of the age group above 18. Studies published between 2012 and 2022 were retrieved using three databases – PubMed, Google Scholar, and Science Direct.

Following Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses extension for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-ScR), (2018) guidelines and based on the selection criteria, 3034 studies were retrieved, of which 64 were included in this review. Maximum studies were conducted in high-income countries and adopted a cross-sectional study design.

Overall, the results of the review illustrate mixed findings.

  • Compared to healthy food, direct associations between obesity and the availability/accessibility of unhealthy foods were reported (n = 12).
  • In the case of diabetes, supermarket availability was more likely to be protective (4 positive) compared to a negative association with unhealthy food stores (3 associations in 11 studies).
  • For cardiovascular diseases, an increased number of cases with fast-food outlets (n = 6) outnumbered positive associations with healthy food (n = 3).
  • Studies concerning multiple NCDs reported direct associations with unhealthy food outlets (n = 5) while inconclusive associations with healthy food.

Despite a large number of studies, a weak, inconclusive relationship between food environment and NCDs was found. The use of standardized tools and longitudinal and interventional studies are warranted to rationalize the execution of the policies related to the food environment.

Co-production of research for food systems transformation: mapping and exploring examples of co-production activities across Transforming the UK Food System (TUKFS) projects (2024)

About this project

Led by Dr Clare Pettinger (University of Plymouth, FoodSEqual) and Professor Charlotte Hardman (University of Liverpool, FIO FoodBeanMeals), this interdisciplinary, cross-project collaboration has engaged researchers from multiple academic institutions in order to better understand how to facilitate, support, and invest in future co-produced research for food systems transformation. 

There is an urgent need for transformation of the UK food system. The ways in which food is currently produced, accessed, and eaten are having significant negative impacts on human health and causing damage to our environment.

To address these issues, there has been a recent shift towards the use of creative and participatory methods of research, including co-production. In line with this, “co-producing research across disciplines and stakeholders to provide evidence for coherent policymaking” is a key strategic aim of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Transforming UK Food Systems (TUKFS) SPF Programme.  

As part of the TUKFS Annual Synergy Fund, this research project identified and mapped examples of where co-production, co-design or co-creation methods are being employed for food system transformation across six TUKFS projects.

This toolkit shares the outputs of this research project, including 11 case studies of co-production, a ‘messy map’ representing our key findings, as well as practical considerations intended for researchers, academic institutions, and funders engaging with these innovative methodological approaches.

Planetary Health by Rx Brick Exchange (updated regularly)

One of the free collections by Rx Brix Exchange is about Planetary Health, which covers the relationship between human health and the environment to empower future health professionals to prepare for and tackle challenges that a changing climate and environmental pollution present to our health and livelihoods. 14 bricks are in the collection and it will take about 3 hours to read or listen to if you choose the audio.

About Rx Brick Exchange

Rx Brick Exchange is a place to share and build on ideas and curriculum, learn from leading experts, and use their expertise in your classroom. Their mission is to create sustainable and accessible medical education for students and educators around the world. It is the first global health sciences curriculum exchange that empowers educators to create and share health science Bricks with faculty and students worldwide.

The Medical Student Alliance for Global Education (MeSAGE) is a student-driven consortium of the world’s leading medical student organizations, representing over 1.3 million learners. Founded in 2019, MeSAGE empowers and supports student organizations with the tools they need to work toward closing educational gaps in areas like health equity, diversity, inclusion, or social justice.

Content development processes are constantly evolving, as they embark on new projects and redefine roles. Their commitment to working with students never wavers. They have a directory of student authors and reviewers to acknowledge people who contribute to the development of the global, shared curriculum vision.

Rx Essentials Collections is a comprehensive library of digital learning modules, designed to help build your foundation of medical knowledge, brick by brick. There are 23 free collections. A 5-day free trial lets you access all of them to see if you are interested in paying to access them as a member.

“A ruined planet cannot sustain human lives in good health. A healthy planet and healthy people are two sides of the same coin.”

Dr. Margaret Chan, Former Director General of the World Health Organization.

Association between sustainable dietary patterns and body weight, overweight, and obesity risk in the NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort (2020)

Seconda L, Egnell M, Julia C, et al. Association between sustainable dietary patterns and body weight, overweight, and obesity risk in the NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort. Am J Clin Nutr. 2020; 112(1): 138-149. doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqz259

From the abstract: Improving the sustainability of current food systems may prevent future public health, environmental, and social concerns. Our objective was to investigate the associations between sustainable dietary patterns, assessed using the Sustainable Diet Index (SDI), and the risk of obesity, overweight, and weight gain in French adults, with a prospective design. The findings support a potential protective role for more sustainable diets to prevent the risk of weight gain, overweight, and obesity.

The construction of this index was based on the FAO definition of food sustainability. The SDI includes 7 indicators categorized into 4 subindexes: environmental, nutritional, economic, and sociocultural.

  1. land occupation, 
  2. greenhouse gas emissions, 
  3. primary energy consumption (grouped together in pReCiPe), 
  4. difference between energy need and intake in absolute terms, 
  5. probability of adequate nutrient intake (PANDiet), 
  6. contribution of organic food to diet, 
  7. proportion of income devoted to diet, place of food purchase, and ready-made product

Communicating about healthy & sustainable eating to consumers with low socioeconomic status: Evidence-based recommendations (2024)

European Food Information Council (EUFIC) and Caritas Trieste in Italy conducted joint research and developed evidence-based recommendations for “Facilitating the Healthy and Sustainable Diet Shift through Effective Communication in Communities with Low Socioeconomic Status”.

Consumers with low socioeconomic status (SES) face unique challenges that limit their uptake of healthy & sustainable eating (e.g., reduced affordability, accessibility, and availability of healthy & sustainable foods). The reduced exposure to, seeking of, and trust in health information that has been observed in consumers with low SES further reinforce these challenges.

This toolkit presents evidence-based recommendations on how to tailor your communication to consumers with low SES to empower them to shift towards healthier & more sustainable diets. The recommendations were developed based on a combination of qualitative and quantitative research findings.

Focus groups with social supermarket beneficiaries and professionals of the Caritas Trieste charitable foundation in Italy provided insights into the barriers and communication preferences of consumers with low SES with regard to healthy & sustainable eating. Based on these insights, tailored communication material (i.e., infographics) was developed and tested in a larger pool of consumers with low SES via an online survey.

This toolkit of recommendations is particularly relevant for science communicators, researchers, health professionals, journalists, NGOs, and policymakers who work with communities with low SES.

Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming (website)

Sustain is a powerful alliance of organisations and communities working together for a better system of food, farming and fishing, and cultivating the movement for change. Together, they advocate food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals, improve the working and living environment, enrich society and culture, and promote equity.

The Sustain alliance works to influence government, local authorities, businesses, organisations and decision-makers in a position to influence or achieve change. We advocate for transparency, legal responsibilities, good governance and accountability. We work with sister alliances and organisations in the UK Nations and support experts and groups working on specialist issues where we can lend our weight. We also work with leaders, food partnerships and communities in places across the UK – and internationally – to improve health and sustainability through the mobilisation and celebration of local action on food.

The main sister alliances that Sustain works with include:

  • Eating Better, is a movement for change of sixty organisations working to accelerate the transition from producing and eating too much meat and dairy to a fairer, healthier and more sustainable food system that is better for animal welfare and for nature.
  • Food Sense Wales is built on the foundations of Food Cardiff, a multi-award-winning food partnership and founding member of the Sustainable Food Places Network managed in partnership with the Soil Association, Food Matters and Sustain. Food Sense Wales delivers pioneering programmes such as Sustainable Food Places, Peas Please, and Food Power – bringing people together through food.
  • Green Alliance is an independent think tank and charity focused on ambitious leadership for the environment. It works with influential leaders in business, NGOs and politics to accelerate political action and create transformative policy for a green and prosperous UK. Sustain has worked extensively with Green Alliance members, and during the Brexit process with the Greener UK coalition hosted by the Green Alliance, to integrate food and farming into key environmental, fisheries and agriculture policy initiatives.
  • Green Care Coalition, was established in 2016 to promote the commissioning and use of Green Care services, and to give voice to the many organisations in the UK that are committed to delivering or supporting the delivery of high-quality and cost-effective Green Care services. Green Care refers to structured therapy or treatment programmes that take place in natural surroundings and recognise the instinctive connection between nature and health.
  • Nourish Scotland works across Scotland for a fair, healthy and sustainable food system that truly values nature and people. Nourish takes a systems approach to food. This means they work across a wide range of issues and levels: from production to consumption, from practice to policy, and from grassroots to national. They champion integrated approaches to solving the big challenges of the current food system: hunger and malnutrition, diet-related disease, exploitation, loss of biodiversity, and climate change.
  • The Obesity Health Alliance is a coalition of over 40 organisations working together to reduce obesity by influencing government policy. The goal of the Obesity Health Alliance is to prevent obesity-related ill-health by supporting evidence-based population-level policies to help address the wider environmental factors that lead to excess body weight.
  • The Sustainable Soils Alliance is a partnership of farming organisations, businesses, NGOs, applied science and academia working together to restore our soils to health within one generation. The alliance pursues this aim by bringing together the community of stakeholders interested in soil management to debate the scale and nature of the problem, agree on the appropriate indicators and determining factors and identify the relevant policy mechanisms and levers for reform. They engage media and stakeholders, educate the general public and lobby government for a policy framework that will bring about the transformational step change needed to support the development of healthy soil for generations to come.
  • The Trade Justice Movement is a UK coalition of nearly sixty civil society organisations, with millions of individual members, calling for trade rules that work for people and the planet. Trade Justice Movement members include trade unions, aid agencies, environment and human rights campaigns, Fair Trade organisations and consumer groups. 
  • Wildlife and Countryside Link is the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England, bringing together 57 organisations to use their strong joint voice for the protection of nature. Link’s members campaign to conserve, enhance and access our landscapes, animals, plants, habitats, rivers and seas.

Can agroecology improve food security and nutrition? A review (2021)

Bezner Kerr, R., Madsen, S., Stüber, M., Liebert, J., Mazibuko, H., Funnel, K., … & Wezel, A. (2021). Can agroecology improve food security and nutrition? A review. Global Food Security, 29, 100540. (paid access)

Highlights

  • 56 agroecology studies had evidence for food security & nutrition (FSN) outcomes.
  • 78% of studies showed positive FSN outcomes from agroecological practices.
  • Key agroecological practices are crop diversity, organic soil amendments, and agroforestry.
  • Farmer networks and attention to social equity dimensions were important.
  • Increased complexity of agroecological system more positively associated with FSN.

Abstract

Agroecology increasingly has gained scientific and policy recognition as having potential to address environmental and social issues within food production, but concerns have been raised about its implications for food security and nutrition, particularly in low-income countries.

This review paper examines recent evidence (1998–2019) for whether agroecological practices can improve human food security and nutrition. A total of 11,771 articles were screened by abstract and title, 275 articles included for full review, with 56 articles (55 cases) selected.

A majority of studies (78%) found evidence of positive outcomes in the use of agroecological practices on food security and nutrition of households in low and middle-income countries. Agroecological practices included crop diversification, intercropping, agroforestry, integrating crop and livestock, and soil management measures.

More complex agroecological systems, that included multiple components (e.g., crop diversification, mixed crop-livestock systems and farmer-to-farmer networks) were more likely to have positive food security and nutrition outcomes.

Food as Medicine Global

Vision – A collaborative global community of farmers, health care providers, healers, hospitals, clinics, educators, schools, academic centers, students, cooks and consumers united in a vision for a healthy world.

Mission – To facilitate educational conversations and collaborative engagement for unifying agriculture and medicine to promote health and healing for all. Food as Medicine Global (FAMG) is about community. We facilitate conversations leading to increased collaborations and individual actions to promote health and healing for all. We host events for continued cooperative engagement, brainstorming, and learning from each other to advance the Food as Medicine movement.

Why? Many of our current world challenges have a common root: the way food is grown and consumed. Farming practices impact the health of people, animals, and the environment. Healthier soil leads to healthier food, healthier people, a healthier ecosystem, and healthier climate. There is already a great deal of work happening globally in these areas; however, much of it is in isolation. Our intent is to gather information, build bridges, advance conversations, strengthen engagement, highlight success stories, and amplify efforts to energize a global movement.